Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a key figure in multiple Republican administrations, and the first Black person to serve as secretary of state, has died of complications from covid-19 at the age of 84.
According to the New York Times, Powell was fully vaccinated and was fighting a breakthrough case of the virus before his death. He had been treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, his family posted to Facebook.
“We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment,” the family wrote. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather, and a great American.”
Powell was simultaneously fighting multiple myeloma, longtime aide Peggy Cifrino told the Associated Press. That’s a cancer of blood plasma cells which is known to seriously inhibit the ability of the body to fight off infections. The AP noted research has found the immune systems of patients with both multiple myeloma and covid-19 are less successful in defeating the latter.
Powell was both the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993, and at the time of his appointment as secretary of state under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, the highest-ranking Black member of the federal executive branch in U.S. history.
As CNN noted, following the U.S. victory in the first Gulf War he became one of the most popular leaders in the country and was widely considered a potential candidate for the presidency. But Powell’s record took serious blows when (according to Powell, against his better judgment) he used that reputation to sell the United Nations on faulty intelligence relating to weapons of mass destruction that was used by the Bush Administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Powell told the UN in a now-infamous speech, “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” This conclusion, as was then known behind the scenes by top Bush officials and is now widely known to be the case, lacked any convincing evidence and was not true. Powell resigned from his federal posts in 2005 and later referred to the event in his autobiography as “one of my most momentous failures, the one with the widest-ranging impact.”
“The event will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary,” Powell added, according to CNN. More pressingly, his speech helped sway public opinion and that of Congress towards the nearly two-decade U.S. occupation of Iraq, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of violent deaths at a minimum (excess deaths are likely at over half a million) and is still ongoing.
In his later years, Powell endorsed Democrats such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters, he said he could no longer consider himself a member of the Republican Party.
Update: 12:45 p.m. ET: This article has been updated with additional context about Powell’s health complications.