Opinion: John Kelly should apologize

(AP)

In his attack on U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson Thursday, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made a number of serious allegations, including the charge that it had been inappropriate and even dishonorable for Wilson to have listened in on a telephone call between President Trump and Myeshia Johnson, the grieving widow of a slain soldier.

Kelly was apparently unaware that the congresswoman was a longtime friend of the Johnson family, that she had served as a school principal for Johnson’s father, that Johnson himself had been mentored by the congresswoman, and that when the presidential call came via speakerphone, Wilson happened to be riding in the car with the widow and the mother of Sgt. La David Johnson to claim the soldier’s remains.

Kelly also made a charge of a different sort, recalling the commemoration two years ago of a new FBI building in Florida that had been named after two FBI agents slain in a gun battle. Kelly had attended the ceremony, and this is how he described it:

“A congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, okay, fine.”

That congresswoman was of course Frederica Wilson.

There are a number of problems with Kelly’s story, starting with the fact that it amounted to a personal attack that had nothing to do with the events in question. It was also highly inaccurate. The building cost a lot more than $20 million, and more importantly, Wilson wasn’t even a member of Congress when money for its construction was appropriated.

But the problems are much more profound than that. A videotape of Wilson’s remarks has now been found and published by the Sun-Sentinel in Florida, and those remarks bear no resemblance whatsoever to Kelly’s description.

Wilson takes no credit for getting funding for the building. She does talk of the difficulty of rushing a bill through Congress in time for the naming ceremony, but makes it clear that she did so out of deep respect for the slain agents and their heroism.  She is also generous in praising others who also recognized the need for speed and pushed the name-approval process through Congress, including then-House Speaker John Boehner and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Nothing in her remarks was the slightest bit inappropriate, either in tone or content.

Certainly, it wasn’t a fraction as personally boastful as any statement on any topic made by Kelly’s boss, President Trump, and Kelly owes Wilson an apology.

Finally, it’s never a good idea to tangle with a four-star Marine general and combat veteran over how best to honor our military dead, particularly when he himself has lost a son in service to our country. But Trump and Kelly have handled this terribly. As I wrote earlier, I’m more than willing to accept that Trump meant well in placing his call to Sgt. Johnson’s widow, but that something in his words came across wrong to those who heard them.  That happens to people, particularly in a difficult conversation like that.

But if that happens, the wise thing to do, the honorable thing to do, would have been for the White House to express regret for any misunderstanding that may have occurred, to humbly take responsibility for that misunderstanding and to reiterate publicly the nation’s deep appreciation and respect for the ultimate sacrifice made by Sgt. Johnson. The worst thing to do, the most disrespectful, was to suggest that the family was wrong, or to suggest that the widow and mother of the slain soldier were lying or misleading when they described their reaction to Trump’s call.

That simply is not how this is done.