White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, a retired Marine general who lost his son in combat, gave an emotional defense Thursday of President Trump's calls to the families of soldiers killed this month in Niger, and assailed a Democratic congresswoman who was among the president's chief critics.
Kelly said he was “stunned” and “brokenhearted” to see a member of Congress, Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida, on television describing Trump's conversation with the widow of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, one of four U.S. soldiers who died in an Oct. 4 ambush in the West African country.
Wilson, a longtime friend of and mentor to Johnson and his family, was with his wife, Myeshia Johnson, in a car when the widow took Trump's phone call, and heard him on a speakerphone. Wilson later described Trump's message as insensitive for suggesting the sergeant knew what he was getting into when he joined the Army.
Kelly, by his unexpected and extraordinary appearance in the White House briefing room, sought to use his uncommon gravitas on the subject of military culture and sacrifice to blunt a controversy that his boss had ignited in past days by a series of false, derogatory and seemingly insensitive remarks.
As both a former general who had sent men and women to battle and a Gold Star father, Kelly spoke with an authority that no typical presidential aide, or the president himself, could have. The press corps sat silent for much of it.
Kelly said that at the president’s request, he had advised Trump what to say to parents or spouses of the four soldiers killed in Niger — words that Trump has now been criticized for. The congresswoman and Johnson’s maternal guardian have said they upset Johnson’s widow.
Kelly said he recounted to Trump what his best friend -- Joseph F. Dunford Jr., now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — had told him after his son, Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010: that the young man was doing exactly what he wanted to do, that he knew what he was getting into by joining the military in wartime and that he was surrounded when he died by the “best men on Earth.”
“That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day,” Kelly said.
While Kelly’s description of Trump’s call provided the president with some political cover, it also confirmed Wilson’s account of what the president said — and contradicted Trump, who repeatedly has accused Wilson of spreading a “totally fabricated” story.
With some emotion and anger, Kelly said that he was “stunned” and ”brokenhearted” on Wednesday, after arriving at his office, “at what I saw a member of Congress doing, a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife.”
Trump had, Kelly said, “in his way tried to express” that Johnson was “a brave man, a fallen hero.”
So incensed was Kelly, he said, by Wilson’s television appearances that he spent an hour and a half walking through Arlington National Cemetery among the graves of fallen soldiers — “some of whom I put in there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”
The flap began on Monday, when Trump was asked why he had yet to speak about the nearly 2-week-old attack on the four soldiers, which is the most deadly to date in his presidency. He did not respond directly but instead asserted that prior presidents had failed to call family members of soldiers who died in combat, eliciting outraged fact-checking from former presidential aides.
Later, Trump challenged reporters to question whether President Obama had called Kelly. The chief of staff confirmed Thursday that he had told Trump that he did not receive a call from Obama when his son died, but Kelly quickly added that said he was not criticizing the former president.
Then Kelly went on, with a more general gripe. “You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country,” he said, listing women, religion and the dignity of life among them — and Gold Star families.
Kelly’s effort at damage control had mixed results. On social media and elsewhere, many noted that the chief of staff was silent on Trump’s own role in violating sacred cows, including by his behavior toward women, his attacks on the Gold Star parents who criticized him at the Democratic National Convention last year, and his maligning of his predecessors for how they responded to military deaths.
"John Kelly's trying to keep his job. He will say anything," Wilson told Politico. "There were other people who heard what I heard."
Kelly said his initial piece of advice to Trump was to not call the families. “There is nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,” Kelly recalled telling Trump, adding that the most important phone calls come from a dead soldier’s buddies in the field.
Perhaps the most poignant moments came as Kelly calmly described the military’s process for handing a battlefield death. He told how comrades wrap bodies in “whatever passes as a shroud” and pack them in ice, how bodies are flown ultimately to Dover Air Force Base for embalming and “meticulously” dressed in uniform “with the medals that they've earned.” Then a casualty officer arrives at families' homes early in the morning, waiting "for the first lights to come on."
Then, Kelly said, “the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until — well, for a long, long time."