Political Guardrails Gone, a President’s Somber Duty Skids Into Spectacle

Indeed, the quarrel between the president and the congresswoman only grew on Saturday, with Mr. Trump again calling Ms. Wilson “wacky” on Twitter and saying she was “killing the Democrat Party.” His comments came just hours before the soldier’s family and friends gathered in Florida for his funeral.

It all started on Tuesday, when Mr. Trump, prodded by questions about the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger, called Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, to offer condolences. His words — that her husband “knew what he signed up for” — seemed crass, unfeeling and disrespectful to the family and were quickly revealed by Ms. Wilson, who had heard them on speakerphone.

But apologies are not part of Mr. Trump’s vocabulary, foreclosing any possibility that he would acknowledge that he might have unintentionally offended Ms. Johnson. In an interview with Fox Business Network on Friday, Mr. Trump insisted that he had been “so nice,” and said he was “very surprised to see this, to be honest with you.”

Ms. Wilson’s decision to go public with her criticism of the president, even as Ms. Johnson was at her husband’s coffin to receive his body, was a reflection of the unbridled anger and frustration among many Democrats, black Americans and others as Mr. Trump tries to dismantle Barack Obama’s legacy.


Representative Frederica S. Wilson, Democrat of Florida, repeatedly disparaged Mr. Trump’s intentions, failing to extend him the benefit of the doubt that previous presidents had received.

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The fierceness of her criticism underscored a truth about politics since Mr. Trump’s arrival in the White House: Few are willing to cut the president any slack after nine months in which he has regularly lashed out at minorities, fellow Republicans, corporate executives, foreign leaders, journalists, judges, members of his own staff, intelligence officials and those investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

At the same time, Mr. Kelly’s searing appearance at the White House — in which he described learning of his own son’s death in battle — came as presidential aides feel aggrieved, under assault from all sides, unfairly treated by the news media and determined to rebut allegations that their boss is uncaring or a bigot.

The dispute took a particularly caustic turn on Friday, when Ms. Wilson, who, like the fallen soldier, is black, and others leveled charges of racism against the president and his aides.

“The White House itself is full of white supremacists,” she told The New York Times. The White House declined to comment.

But the president responded angrily hours later, tweeting early on Saturday that “I hope the Fake News Media keeps talking about Wacky Congresswoman Wilson in that she, as a representative, is killing the Democrat Party!”

Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist from Florida who is close to both Ms. Wilson and Mr. Kelly, responded angrily.

“Sgt. La David Johnson is being laid to rest this morning,” she wrote in response to the president. “And this is what the lame excuse for Commander-in-Chief is focused on. Disgusting.”

Mr. Trump’s decision on Saturday to prolong the feud was predictable for a politician who prides himself on confrontation and regularly lashes out at his critics in biting, personal terms — clashes that are often a hit with his political base. (A spokeswoman for the first lady, Melania Trump, once said that “when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”)

Previous calls for Mr. Trump to apologize — after mocking a disabled reporter, disparaging the looks of a female rival, or falsely claiming that Mr. Obama had wiretapped him — have been ignored or followed up instead by a doubling down on the original comments.

And Ms. Wilson, a flamboyant, cowboy-hat-wearing Democrat, is just the kind of critic that can push Mr. Trump’s buttons.

Push she did, without hesitation.

She had listened in on the president’s call as a longtime friend of the Johnson family, and though it is unclear whether the family knew that she was going to reveal what the president had said, they backed her characterization of his remarks. They were offended that the president never used Sergeant Johnson’s name, instead calling him “your guy.”

The congresswoman’s actions were consistent with those of a member of the “resistance” to Mr. Trump, primed to react harshly to whatever he says. “There’s no reason for the president to be so insensitive,” Ms. Wilson said on CNN on Tuesday night. She added that “it’s disrespectful to the family of every soldier that has paid the ultimate price.”

“Our community is livid,” she said.

For more than 24 hours, Ms. Wilson was seemingly everywhere, even joking at one point that “I’ll have to tell my kids that I’m a rock star now.”

As the White House struggled to contain the fallout without an apology from the top, aides turned to Mr. Kelly, whose connection to the story was excruciatingly personal: His son Robert Kelly was killed in battle in 2010 in Afghanistan.

Inside the West Wing, Mr. Kelly’s colleagues cheered, and some even cried, during his surprise appearance on Thursday in the press briefing room, initially seeing it as a powerful message of loss that might bring an end to the political bickering.

But if that was his intention, Mr. Kelly failed. By attacking Ms. Wilson, Mr. Kelly amplified the controversy. And by citing past events that turned out to be false, Mr. Kelly invited news media scrutiny and criticism even from his former military colleagues.

James A. Marks, a retired Army major general who served with Mr. Kelly, said the chief of staff had missed a chance to lower the temperature, and had instead raised it.

“He has a platform. Suddenly, the dais is his and he commands it. There is no one in the room that has more respect and authority than John Kelly,” Mr. Marks, who is known as “Spider,” said of Mr. Kelly’s appearance at the White House lectern. “He chose that moment to slam a congresswoman. It becomes a personal attack, and John’s the chief of staff of the president.”

In another White House, a chief of staff might have followed up with an apology of his own, or at least an attempt to correct the record. But Mr. Trump’s aides know the president is watching what they say. And they follow his lead.

Instead of apologizing, Mr. Kelly retreated out of the spotlight. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, deflected questions, saying it was “highly inappropriate” to question Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star general. And she repeated the essence of his criticism of Ms. Wilson: “As we say in the South: All hat, no cattle.”

It was a line that the president probably liked.

Correction: October 21, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated in one instance Myeshia Johnson’s relationship to Sgt. La David T. Johnson. As the article correctly noted elsewhere, he was her husband, not her son.

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