It’s a measure of the ongoing tumult that routinely accompanies the Trump presidency that separate attacks by his two immediate predecessors weren’t the worst of the controversies that dogged him this week.
In any normal administration the fact that George W Bush and Barack Obama denounced Trump’s corrosive effect on US discourse and democracy in separate forums on the same day would dominate news cycles and debate.
But they had to take a backseat to a sordid row over what President Trump said or didn’t say to the widow of an American soldier killed along with three colleagues in Niger earlier this month.
And along the way the real story was lost in the fracas: what now for the grieving widow of a fallen soldier forgotten as politicians turned her husband’s death into a political dogfight that’s still not done?
At its peak, Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, had to again ride in and save his boss with a public performance that briefly suggested the most presidential person at the White House isn’t the president, it’s Kelly.
But even he isn’t entirely immune from Trump-like gaffes. By week’s end he’d eased the pressure on his boss, only to take a hit himself.
A retired four-star general and a former head of Homeland Security under Trump, Kelly crossed to the White House in July to try to calm the place after a string of resignations and sackings.
Most of his work has been done behind the scenes, but observers believe he’s been good for the administration, bringing much needed efficiency and discipline. If nothing else, he deserves praise for moving on White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci within weeks of starting in the job.
The Gold Star parent
In addition to his highly decorated military status and years of public service, Kelly is sadly also what the Americans call a Gold Star parent, having lost a child in the service of their country.
In 2010 John and Karen Kelly’s 29-year-old son, Robert, was killed while serving in Afghanistan when he stepped on a landmine. Their other son is also a soldier and on his fifth tour of duty fighting ISIS.
This became particularly relevant this week after Trump dug himself a hole over the deaths of the four US soldiers in Niger and then, when a public relations disaster ensued, just kept on digging.
Trump had been asked during a frenzied and impromptu press conference on Monday why it had taken him 12 days to acknowledge the Niger deaths. Was anymore known about what happened to them? Would he be reaching out to the latest Gold Star families?
He talked about a military investigation, waffled on about when letters might or might no go out to the families of the dead soldiers, said he planned on telephoning parents and then, as is his want, introduced Barack Obama to the discussion. Things went downhill fast from there.
Trump said Obama and other presidents didn’t phone the families of fallen soldiers and when pressed by reporters said: “I was told that he didn’t often.”
Of course, that was wrong. In fact, Obama was very diligent in dealing with Gold Star families, always writing, often calling. Most other presidents have done likewise.
The condemnation was swift and furious, with former Obama attorney general Eric Holder leading the charge. The president, he said, should “stop the damn lying”; another former staffer called Trump “a deranged animal”.
Trump keeps on digging
Instead of withdrawing with grace, Trump dug deeper.
He introduced Kelly to the controversy, telling reporters Obama hadn’t called the general when he lost his son in Afghanistan, thus making public an incident the former general has long been reluctant to talk about publicly.
By now, Trump had dug a hole about two metres deep. But he was only halfway there.
Next he made his calls to the families of the four dead soldiers – for this he must be applauded – but one of them didn’t go according to the script.
The president called the pregnant widow of Sgt La David T Johnson as she was making her way to an airport to receive the remains of her husband.
Trump reportedly told Mrs Johnson her husband “knew what he signed up for” and referred to the soldier only as “your guy,” according to Sergeant Johnson’s mother and Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who both listened to the call on speakerphone.
Soon Congresswoman Wilson was leading pretty much every news service in America with her version of a hapless and heartless consoler-in-chief fumbling his lines.
A smarter or more empathetic politician than Trump would have exited at this point, perhaps with a brief statement or tweet telling America that he had no wish to reveal the content of a very private conversation but wished to stress that the fallen soldier was an American hero and his sympathies lay with the family of the fallen man.
Instead, he kept digging. By now he was three metres down and darkness was descending.
“Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!,” Trump tweeted the morning after Wilson’s various appearances.
Later he went further, calling Wilson wacky and accusing her – and, by extension, the dead soldier’s mother, who’d backed the congresswoman’s version of the call – of telling “a total lie on content”.
Kelly takes centre stage
Enter Kelly. In an occasionally wrenching 18-minute appearance in the White House briefing room on Thursday he was resolute, articulate and measured.
He claimed that in the phone call to the soldier Trump “tried to express (the) opinion that he was a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”.
“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,” Kelly said. “That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.”
By the end of his explanation, he appeared to have dug Trump out his very deep hole. The president may have messed up his lines but his intentions were entirely honourable. Great, let’s move on.
But Kelly made one miscalculation: he took a couple of swipes at Congresswoman Wilson, accusing her of grandstanding.
Wilson is as feisty as she is flamboyant and within hours she’d come back at Kelly, accusing him of misrepresenting her and hinting at racism.
Not for the first time, General Kelly had changed the nature of the battle. But he was the one now drawing fire.
Paying the Trump tax
Pretty soon his reputation was being sullied. This seems to happen quite frequently to those who work with Trump, especially those forced to defend him. (The New Yorker calls it ‘paying the Trump tax’.)
“I feel very sorry for him because he feels such a need to lie on me and I’m not even his enemy,” Congresswoman Wilson said of Mr. Kelly, adding: “The White House itself is full of white supremacists.”
Which pretty much guaranteed the sordid saga has a few more days to run yet.
Meanwhile, in Florida, a soldier’s widow with two small children and a third on the way, is pondering how her husband died somewhere in Africa and why the US military, the politicians and their helpers still haven’t told her how and why.
And perhaps she’s asking a simpler question too: why is it so damn hard for Donald Trump to say ‘sorry’?