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Trump’s Condolence Call: Was It Respectful?

Welcome to From Insults to Respect. Today’s topic, a problematic condolence call from President Trump to a grieving soldier’s widow.

What Happened

Myeshia Johnson’s husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, died in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4, 2017. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Johnson received a condolence call from President Trump. Mrs. Johnson then told ABC news that the president struck a callous tone during their conversation–telling her, “He knew what he signed up for”–and that he repeatedly forgot her husband’s name.

Verifying what Mrs. Johnson heard was her long time friend, Frederica Wilson, a Texas congresswoman. Wilson was in the car with Mrs. Johnson when the president’s call came, and Mrs. Johnson chose to put the call on speaker mode so her friend could hear.

Upon hearing Wilson’s take on what happened, the president publicly derided her as “wacky” and called her account a “total lie.” In doing so, he indirectly said that the grieving widow had lied, since Wilson’s account of what happened matches what the widow said. Additionally, he publicly insulted the widow’s close friend.

So, at this point, in addition to grieving the loss of her husband, Mrs. Johnson began to also deal with the experience of hearing all of this being broadcast in front of the whole world. Then, the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly appears in the White House briefing room seeking to defend the president and clarify what had occurred.

Kelly, a former four-star general, began by describing in some detail what happens when US military personnel are killed in combat. As to phone calls, Kelly explained:

“Typically, the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies. In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really mattered.”

Kelly further explained that in these cases presidents typically write a letter, and he recommended to Trump that he not make calls because “it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to.” Nevertheless, Trump elected to make phone calls in the cases of four young men who were killed in Niger. I note here that Trump also chose to politicize his calls by going before the national press to inform the public of his decision, and that former President Obama did not make such phone calls.

Kelly, during his White House briefing room speech, mentioned that once it was decided that these calls were going to be made, the following question came up between him and Trump:

“…how do you make these calls? If you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’ve never been in combat, you can’t even imagine how to make that call….”

So Kelly offered his advice to Trump about what to say, explaining it this way:

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer [when my son was killed in action]. 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 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.”

Then Kelly describes to his audience his view of what Trump said when he made the phone call to the grieving wife. As he does so, Kelly includes his own reaction to what he heard Congresswoman Wilson say about Trump’s call:

“That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress [Wilson] who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

“That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.”

Now recall that Trump declared that what Wilson had said was a total lie. In Kelly’s description he actually verifies that Trump indeed said during his call to Mrs. Johnson that her husband knew what he signed up for. So Wilson’s statement had not been a total lie. Kelly was silent about whether or not Trump had had trouble recalling Mrs. Johnson’s husband’s name during the phone call.

At the White House briefing room, Kelly went on to say:

“It stuns me that a member of Congress [Wilson] would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred….”

“And when I listened to this woman and what she was saying, and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this Earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery. I went over there for an hour-and-a-half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”

Kelly finished up by further attacking Wilson, calling her an empty Barrel and falsely claiming she used a speech commemorating a building named for two fallen FBI agents to brag about her role in getting funds for the project. A video of the event shows that this did not happen, but Kelly, like his boss, Trump, has been refusing to apologize.

Commentary

Here I’ll make a few general comments about condolence calls, and then give my personal critique of how the president and his chief of staff handled this situation.

Condolence calls, in my opinion, are about paying one’s respect to the bereaved. This involves giving the bereaved a chance to express their grief and joy for having had the opportunity to share a life together. For the person who is mourning, it is very important to know there are people who are supportive of what they are going through. So the condolence call lets those in the family, and others particularly close to the deceased, know you are thinking about them in their time of need. It also gives you an opportunity to share in that grief.

The general format of what to say is something like this, “I am truly sorry for your loss.” Then we listen in a caring manner.

It is often nice to say something like, “I really respect your husband’s contributions to our community” and then mention a specific example or two. Another nice thing to add is something like, “He was a wonderful friend to me, helping me during times of need, and I’ll never forget his kindness.”

Upon making such comments, the bereaved party may often make some replies, and here again, listening in a caring manner is crucial. The main focus is on a caring tone, and saying things that you feel would be helpful to the bereaved, while avoiding attacking the bereaved for any perceived transgressions.

Now, there are times when the bereaved, being in such a low state, may lash out in anger if he or she thinks you might have had anything to do with the death. Sometimes the accusations are unfair. I remember when the family cat died in my household. My son was ten-years old and he saw me and my wife as the heads of the household and therefore we should have done something to prevent the cat’s death. Our son angrily yelled at me. In my opinion, this is not the time to dispute such claims, but rather, to listen and sympathize. There will be opportunities to discuss in a reasonable manner what might have been done differently after the mourning period is over. Counterattacking the person doing the blaming will only make a difficult situation much worse.

Another example of this occurred when then President George W. Bush met the families of slain soldiers. Some screamed at him and blamed him for their deaths. Bush stood and took it, holding them and weeping with them. Despite those verbal attacks occurring in a public setting, he never tried to defend himself by insulting any of the family members.

Now, if you will, contrast what I wrote above with what Trump and Kelly did.

Although we did not personally hear what was said during the phone call, afterwards, Mrs. Johnson made it clear that she did not find what the president said on the phone helpful. Rather than attacking her and her friend as lying, I think Trump and Kelly, after taking some time to calm down from what they perceived as negative criticism, would have done far better to ask themselves why she might have reacted as she had.

I think what seems fairly evident to me is that Kelly and Trump botched things when they thought that the grieving wife would somehow be comforted by a statement that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” We can plainly see why Trump and Kelly might be comforted by such a statement if they were to get a condolence call in a similar situation. The reason why is revealed by Kelly when he said at the White House briefing,

“I went over there [to Arlington National Cemetery] for an hour-and-a-half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”

As a general who has considerable responsibility for sending soldiers into conditions in which some end up dying, and as a president who has the ultimate responsibility for what the military does, a statement like “he knew what he signed up for” can salve any guilt such people may have deep inside for the death of military personnel. But for a bereaved wife, such a statement does not hold the same value, and can rather serve as an attempt to make excuses for the decision makers who are perceived as having some of the responsibility for sending her husband into a situation that ended in death. Making such excuses at a time of what was supposed to be a condolence call could come off as disrespectful.

Another miscalculation, in my opinion, came when Kelly took great offense that Mrs. Johnson chose to put her phone on speaker mode when Trump made the call to her. Framing it as violating something sacred seems to me as rather puzzling. Where did Kelly get this principle that it is somehow sacred for a grieving woman to not share a president’s call with others? This is certainly not anything I, or anyone else that I talked with, ever heard of. Rather than becoming angry about some unheard of principle of sacredness, it seems far more plausible that he was actually incensed that there was a witness to the call that didn’t go down very well.

Getting back to Trump’s reaction to all of this, I think he would have done much better if rather than getting defensive and insulting Mrs. Johnson and her friend, he simply said something like,

I understand that Mrs. Johnson took offense at what I said when I made the phone call to her and how I said some things. I sincerely apologize for I only meant to pay my respect to her and her family and to let her know that all Americans honor her husband’s service to his country. 

Another thing that I would have also done is to let the public know that in order to better handle these types of situations I shall be inviting a large group of Gold Star family members to the White House to confer with them on their views about what is the best way for US presidents to respond whenever loved ones die in combat. After all, paying one’s respect to Gold Star families should not be about what the president views as helpful, but rather what the family members view as helpful.

Finally, from the personal perspective of this writer, Trump’s effort to make the condolence calls a way to make political points by saying Obama didn’t make such phone calls failed miserably to achieve its purpose.

Well, those are some of my thoughts about this very sensitive situation. I hope they provide some ideas worth considering. Until next time, may you all have a healthy, productive week.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

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