President Trump and his defenders blame the flap over a soldier's widow on the "fake news media." Perhaps because Trump has been a Democrat most of his life, he doesn't realize how futile and irrelevant this criticism is.
A Republican blaming unfair media coverage for his problems is like an engineer blaming gravity for his plane crashing. A good engineer overcomes gravity and good Republican politician learns to deal with a press ideologically arrayed against him.
On Tuesday night, reporters were passing a misleading quotation around Twitter. "Trump to widow of Sgt. La David Johnson: ‘He knew what he signed up for,' " one reporter tweeted out. This quotation came from a Democratic member of Congress paraphrasing the mother of Johnson, who was in the car with her daughter-in-law when President Trump called — yet it was presented as a direct Trump qquotation by a reporter, in a tweet retweeted far more than the reporter's subsequent tweets that provided actual facts.
The obvious explanation is that Trump was trying to praise Sgt. Johnson's bravery — that Johnson knew how dangerous this job was and nonetheless took it on. White House chief of staff John Kelly explained in Thursday's emotional briefing that he advised Trump to say as much (although he advised Trump against calling at all) because it was what his son's friends told him over the phone when his son died in Afghanistan in 2010. This explanation was mostly ignored by a media drumming up inappropriate outrage.
Trump is not the smoothest speaker and expressing delicate sentiments has never been his forte. (Recall his "warmest condolences" for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting? Comforting is not comfortable for Trump.) He'd be wise to watch Kelly's entire speech from Thursday to get a sense of how to use the right tone and words when discussing tragedies of this gravity.
So far, this story isn't terribly different from what might have happened to President Ronald Reagan or either of the Bushes. But Trump, unlike those presidents, has a tendency to blow up every disagreement by refusing to take the high road.
Trump asserted that previous presidents never called the families of the fallen and he publicly and flatly declared that Sgt. Johnson's family was wrong.
Imagine if Trump had handled it as President George W. Bush, who also sometimes misspoke, would have handled it. Imagine if Trump had taken the high road.
Trump could have ignored the negative and at times misleading news reports. If he did this, reporters might never have followed up with the Johnson family and the story would have died.
Even after the follow-up questions hit the news, seeming to confirm the third-hand account of Trump's words and the widow's anger, the high road was available to Trump. He could have said, "She lost her husband and I understand her anger."
George W. Bush faced an angry mother of a fallen soldier. As she screamed at him, full of anger, Bush stood and "took it."
This is not Trump's style, we know. Fighting over every scrap, countering every punch with a punch, is how he got where he is. The tendency of other Republicans to just live with media bias has infuriated the Republican base for decades. Trump's counterpunches don't have to be based on fact or possessed of tact. They just need to inflict pain on the bad guy.
Fighting back against the media at every turn inspires a portion of Trump's troops. But those of us who care about his agenda, who want Obamacare repealed, taxes reformed, good judges confirmed, and harmful regulations pared back, don't find the media bloodsport so enjoyable, because petty fights get in the way of the agenda.
While not every Trump voter cares about the policy agenda he promised during the campaign, many do. Those voters will be disenchanted if Trump accomplishes nothing on the policy front. A man who won by a few thousand votes in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania cannot afford to lose any significant chunk of his electorate.
What has Trump accomplished by keeping this controversy going? Probably nothing. It's too late to fix in this instance, but the next time Trump is tempted to run his mouth and jump to his own defense, he should take a deep breath and ask himself, "What would John Kelly do?"