John Kelly’s Heroes

The White House chief of staff teaches a lesson in grief and sacrifice.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly takes questions during the White House daily briefing in Washington, Oct. 19.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly takes questions during the White House daily briefing in Washington, Oct. 19. PHOTO: SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

Over the past nine months, Donald Trump’s cage match with the Washington press corps has turned into an unedifying national spectacle. Too often, the serious business of the nation has been pushed aside so that the press and Mr. Trump could go tit for tat, like children on a schoolyard. On Thursday, an adult finally stepped into the room.

John Kelly, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff and a retired four-star general, addressed White House reporters on this week’s dispute between the press and the President. That is the controversy around Mr. Trump’s call to the widow of a U.S. soldier who was killed during an ambush in Niger recently.

As anyone who follows media reports knows, the President’s call to this widow grew into a personal feud between Mr. Trump and a Democratic Congresswoman who disclosed what the President said. It then produced long newspaper reports examining the President’s relationship with every identifiable Gold Star family during his term. 

It took awhile for Mr. Kelly to get around to talking about that phone call. Instead, he spent some time offering what we in journalism—or anyone purporting to be engaged in a serious line of work—would call context. Mr. Kelly described what happens when a U.S. soldier or Marine—“the best 1% this country produces”—gets killed in action. What he described was a military process that is graphic, emotionally intense and, most of all, untouchable.

Untouchable, as Mr. Kelly made clear, in the sense that what has happened is so grave, so personal and so difficult that the reality of pushing through it comes down to an encounter between the fallen soldier’s family, the officer who informs them and, in time, support from those who served alongside their son or daughter.

Mr. Kelly explained that a personal call from the President is in fact not what families expect or want. But it has become something of a presidential tradition, and Mr. Trump asked Mr. Kelly what he should say.

Mr. Kelly related what his friend and “my casualty officer,” Marine General Joseph Dunford, told him when relating that Mr. Kelly’s own son had been killed in Afghanistan: “He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war.”

That, essentially, is what Mr. Trump said to the Gold Star widow, no doubt less eloquently. Standing in the White House press room, reflecting on a political spat over a dead soldier, Mr. Kelly said, “I thought at least that was sacred.” His remarks are a rebuke to the Congresswoman for politicizing a private phone call, and to the press corps for attempting to turn grief and sacrifice into a hammer against Donald Trump—who, as usual, made things worse by lashing out in response.

John Kelly made a lot of people look small Thursday. The man who led soldiers in combat in Iraq described spending an hour this week walking in Arlington Cemetery, collecting his thoughts and looking at headstones, some with names of Marines who Mr. Kelly said were there because they did what he had told them to do.

Surely there is a sense in which the continuing political life of Washington is possible because of that sacrifice. That was John Kelly’s point. It would be nice to think the rest of the city could get it.

Correction: An earlier version mistakenly said Mr. Trump called the mother of the fallen soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson.

Appeared in the October 20, 2017, print edition as ‘John Kelly’s Heroes.’

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