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John Kelly changed the game

Commentary Magazine
Noah Rothman
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks during a White House briefing October 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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For approximately 18 minutes, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly accomplished the impossible: He got America's journalists and political opinion writers to shut up and listen.

Kelly took to the podium in the White House briefing room on Thursday to put an end to a controversy that had been bleeding the White House of credibility for days. On Monday, the president was asked why he had not yet spoken out about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger and if he had spoken with the families of those killed in action. Trump confessed that he had not yet called the families of the dead because they were difficult calls for him to make. But he sought to insulate himself from criticism by insisting that Barack Obama, too, had refrained from contacting the families of deceased servicemen and women.

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To the press, this sounded like a challenge, and they responded as they should. Methodical accounts of calls made by Obama to Gold Star families were uncovered. The Washington Post discovered that Trump had personally promised $25,000 to a bereaved family; the check was not written until the day that story was published. Finally, when Trump did contact the family of a serviceman who died in Niger, it was overheard by a family friend—Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson—who told the press that Trump had behaved insensitively on that call. Trump denied it, but the grieving mother of the fallen confirmed Wilson's account.

It was a bad story for the White House, and Kelly was tasked with damage control. And he succeeded. Kelly held the rapt attention of reporters in the briefing room as he described what happens to a soldier when he is slain in action. Voice cracking, he opened up about his own experience when his friend, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, told him that his son lost his life in Afghanistan. Kelly said that Dunford used a variation of the words that Trump used, which the president's critics had called artless. They might have been, but Kelly noted that there simply are no words that can ease the pain of that moment for a grieving parent who has lost their son or daughter. And he expressed bitter disappointment that the president's words would be used as a political football by Rep. Wilson.

Trump's critics are charging headlong off of defensible terrain and into a debate about American values—debates that Trump tends to win.

It was a moment that changed the game for Trump. When the president is fighting a war against established and confirmed facts, he loses. This week's $25,000 check is not unlike the money Trump raised for veterans early in 2016 to counterprogram against a Fox News Channel debate he wanted to skip; the press can humiliate Trump and compel him to act in ways he'd prefer to avoid. But the facts have to be demonstrable. When Trump is engaged in a battle over amorphous sentiments and values–even if they are values Trump does not personally appear to share–he is on firmer terrain. That was precisely the terrain Trump's chief of staff chose for the president.

Toward the end of his address, Kelly gave the press a rare window into his own thinking on cultural and political matters. He expressed disgust at the values and mores that have been cast aside. Respect for women, the sanctity of life, service to one's country, honoring the sacrifice of a Gold Star family above petty political concerns–all gone. Many observed that these criticisms apply as much to Trump as they do his detractors, but that is beside the point. The nebulous and yet nevertheless intuitive values Kelly articulated—chivalry, piety, valor, and patriotism—are precisely the grounds on which Trump prefers to make his stands.

It turns out that Kelly was mistaken about Wilson. He attacked her for praising her own role in securing funding for a new FBI building in her district. In fact, she had only taken credit for helping to name it, and she did so in a humble and bipartisan way. Kelly was posturing as incensed for the benefit of the audience, and it was effective. Nevertheless, he missed the mark, and he should address the error. That will not be good enough for Kelly's critics who are today behaving as though Trump's chief of staff has slandered Wilson's good name and must have satisfaction. What's more, in scene-chewing fashion, Kelly's critics are going so far as to deem him racist.

Planned Parenthood attacked Kelly for joining in a "pattern" of Trump administration officials "undermining black women." MSNBC host Joy Reid and Lawrence O'Donnell implied Kelly's comments were inspired by his upbringing in "segregated Boston." Even Rep. Wilson suggested that Kelly deployed a "racist term" by attacking her for living up to the "long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise." The phrase "empty barrels" had not been racist until about 4 hours ago, as of this writing, but it's not hard to find liberal Kelly critics echoing the charge with vim. In fact, the line Kelly used is only one word off from a famous refrain in Shakespeare's Henry V: "I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true 'The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.'" It is hard to think of a more Shakespearean twist than a national effort to dissect this line for hints of coded racism.

Kelly erred in his attack on Wilson, but so, too, did Wilson err in her attack on Kelly. Trump's critics will make no allowance for simple mistakes here; Kelly was far too effective behind that podium to let it stand unchallenged. In the process of litigating their grievance, Trump's critics are charging headlong off of defensible terrain and into a debate about American values—debates that Trump tends to win. One day, Trump's critics will stop making the same mistakes, but that is not today.

Commentary by Noah Rothman, the associate editor of Commentary magazine. Follow him on Twitter @noahcrothman.

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