Less than a year after President Donald Trump was elected, we are already far too desensitized to the reality that unprecedented events are going to routinely transpire surrounding this administration. This week, the latest plot twist in this reality television show has been Trump doing battle with a congresswoman over what he said to the widow of a fallen soldier in a condolence phone call.
Never before has a president gotten themselves into such a major controversy over a subject which is usually kept out of the public eye because of the respect that all involve have always had for the process of honoring our casualties of war. I blame this development mostly on Trump because he shortsightedly and needlessly brought up the subject of his habit of calling the families of the deceased, while even taking a bit of a shot at the alleged practices of past presidents.
However, after Trump opened the door, while a more disciplined president would have simply taken the high road and let the story quickly fade, as unseemly as it all has seemed, I’m not really sure that anyone here is really much to blame for what they have said. In fact, I think the most likely scenario is that everyone involved, Trump, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, Chief of Staff Kelly, and the family of Sgt. La David T. Johnson are all sincerely recalling what they think happened and are being pushed to voice their versions by the forces of hyper partisanship, which have never been stronger.
The debate over the meaning of Trump apparently saying that the soldier, “knew what he signed up for,” feels like a Rorschach test for how everyone views this president.
If you are a fan of Trump, you think it utterly impossible that he could purposely insult a member of the military who gave his life for our country. To you, Clearly Trump meant that he understood the nature of the risk he was taking and was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.
If, like the Democratic congresswoman and presumably the soldier’s family, you don’t respect Trump and you think of him as a self-centered draft-dodger, then he gets absolutely no benefit of the doubt. To you, the president was being disrespectful and is now attacking those in mourning to soothe his own damaged ego.
In this case, it seems like everyone is telling the truth, at least as they see it, through the incredibly dense partisan prism of self-interest.
In today’s hyper-divided political climate, there is never any real incentive to not fight out every possible battle until the cable networks make it clear they are no longer interested in the subject as ratings-friendly programing. Each side has its own media which will spin the facts in their direction and, as long as you are throwing punches, that audience will presume that your opposition party is definitely the one who is in the wrong.
The gravitational pull of the partisan media narrative (as well as the need to please one’s boss) is so powerful that it even clearly impacted Trump’s chief of staff Gen. John Kelly, who would seem immune to such pressures, especially within this subject matter. After all, he is not only a former military general with no real political background, but his son was also killed in combat.
While no one could question Kelly’s moral standing or the authenticity of his emotional defense yesterday of president Trump, there were other elements of his statement which seemed odd. For instance, Trump had said that he had “proof” that he didn’t say what Wilson claimed on the phone call. Presumably, Kelly was that “proof,” but Trump’s own chief of staff actually corroborated the words that Wilson said he used, it’s just that Kelly interpreted them very differently.
Kelly also attacked Wilson for listening in on the conversation, but this seemed to indicate that he had, at the very least, a lack of good information about the nature of the call on the other end and her relationship with the family. Also, why would it be so forbidden for her to be listening in but not for him to be doing seemingly the same exact thing (unless, I guess, he has so little confidence in Trump to pull off such basic presidential tasks as this one that he needs to act as a constant baby sitter).
As for Wilson, I doubt if Trump was not so incredibly unpopular among Democrats and African-Americans, that she ever would have felt comfortable counter-attacking Kelly’s statement as vigorously and inappropriately as she did. Not long ago there might have been some political price to pay for her essentially claiming that Kelly was lying to keep his job, but those days are now gone, probably forever. Instead, I am quite sure that she only heard the cheers of her crowd for having done this.
In the end, we probably will never know whether what Trump said on that call was discourteous or not (my guess is that it was unartful, but not intentionally hurtful). There will also probably not be one person who will change their mind about him in either direction because of this dustup.
It is a fundamental reality of human nature that people will tend to believe what they wanted to in the first place. Thanks to our badly broken political dialogue, it has never been easier for people to do exactly that.
This sad story is a perfect of that dangerous and counter-productive phenomenon.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.