The latest debacle over Trump’s response to Gold Star families illustrates why people hate politics and have lost respect for both our leaders and our institutions. Nobody behaved well, not the president, not the congresswoman, not the press, and not the partisans pushing to score political points. The woman who lost her husband and is left to raise three children alone, including one on the way, gets ignored and becomes a footnote in the controversy.
The whole thing started when Trump and his administration ham-handedly handled the death of four soldiers in Niger. Instead of making a statement about their deaths or explaining why they were in the central African country, Trump was busy tweeting about football players and fake news. When the press asked him if he had reached out to families of the fallen, Trump felt compelled to say that he does more than his predecessors. (Of course he does. Nobody does more than Donald Trump on any matter. We all know that by now.) And doing what journalists do, the press fact checked him.
The media reported that Trump, in fact, had not reached out to families. The president then felt compelled to get in touch with Gold Star families ASAP. So he started calling. Bad idea. Trump lacks empathy so consoling families is a recipe for disaster. That said, he thought he was doing what he’s supposed to do. He just got the words tangled up. Unfortunately, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson was on the line when Trump mangled his condolences.
Wilson went straight to the press. They, in turn, went to Trump, who then lied and denied what he had said. From then on, the whole debacle turned into a day of he said/she said while most other news got lost in the firestorm. After a couple of days dominating the political news cycle, Chief of Staff and Gold Star father John Kelly gave a press conference describing what happens when a family receives notice that they’ve lost a loved one. He looked like the adult that the Trump administration needs and sounded like a caring man, deeply sympathetic to military families. Unfortunately, he also used the occasion to bash Rep. Wilson by mischaracterizing her words at a dedication ceremony she attended years ago.
By Friday, the firestorm had dominated the news for four days without any real point or useful information. To be clear, Trump started it to cover up for his silence on Niger by pointing fingers and lying. Rep. Wilson, though, had no reason to go public with the conversation between Trump and the war widow except to make him seem callous and uncaring, something most of us who oppose Trump already believe and something his supporters will never buy. The press, who’ve been relentlessly attacked by the president for presenting “fake news,” wanted to show that Trump was lying, again something we already know.
The debacle has leaked into this week with almost nothing gained. That Trump is a self-absorbed liar who lacks empathy is not news. That he botched a condolence call might have deserved a mention, but not a week of coverage. Kelly is far more sympathetic than the other political players or press, but even he couldn’t help trying score political points. He can’t be blamed for trying to cover for his boss but he can be criticized for not apologizing to Wilson for his mischaracterization.
While we were watching this four day story, we never found out why we’re in Niger or what happened to the four soldiers who were killed. We gave short shrift to more important stories about a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and a potential civil war in Iraq. On the home front, the tax reform plan got overshadowed by tweets and press conferences. Meanwhile, nothing of consequence came out the fight between Trump, Wilson and the media.
That’s why the public hates politics. The press and politicians put Gold Star families in the middle of political skirmish with no discernible goal. Wilson may have acted hastily and in anger but still her accusation shifted the conversation away from the fallen and onto her and Trump. Trump lied and besmirched Wilson but he does that almost every week (day?) to somebody. He certainly should be called out for it, but it shouldn’t dominate the news cycle for a week because, at the end of the day, we have no additional useful information. The press is too eager to show that Trump is the one promoting fake news, not them. They would be wiser to take a just-the-facts-,ma’am approach instead of sensationalizing a political battle that has no relevant policy implications. Build the case that he’s untrustworthy but don’t revel in his fantasy world. We learned nothing new from this whole episode. It just reconfirmed people’s view that our politics is dysfunctional and petty.