To White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, the conversation between the president of the United States and the spouse of a fallen soldier is “sacred.” And, perhaps, private.
But President Trump has been on the receiving end of significant criticism after Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said he told a pregnant widow that her husband who was killed in an ambush in Niger knew what he signed up for. Trump denies he said those words, which the lawmaker called insensitive, to Myeshia Johnson.
Kelly said Thursday during the White House news briefing that he was shocked that Wilson was even a part of the conversation.
“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation,” he said Thursday in the White House briefing room. “It stuns me. I thought at least that was sacred.”
Wilson being present for a conversation between the commander in chief and one of her grieving constituents doesn't make the call not “sacred.” Neither does the fact that the mother of the fallen soldier — who confirmed Wilson’s report — was present as well.
Perhaps Kelly, who also listened to the call, would be less stunned if he realized that Wilson’s primary identity to the Johnson family isn’t as a member of Congress. The Johnsons have known Wilson for decades — most of those years before the former educator moved to Washington to join Congress.
“When I saw the headline that a young man was killed in Niger from Carol City, I thought, ‘My God, please don’t let it be a role model,'" Wilson told Politico. “And it was.”
The deceased soldier was an alumnus of the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project, a mentoring program Wilson started for youths pursuing military careers, among other fields. So were his brothers. One received a full scholarship to Bethune-Cookman University, and the other is training to become a firefighter.
Wilson’s connection to the family goes back at least one generation. She told CNN that she was the principal of a school that Johnson’s father attended.
These relationships were part of why Wilson was with the family — not just because she was “a member of Congress.”
The Washington Post's Derek Hawkins wrote about this
Wilson was consoling his wife, Myeshia Johnson, when, by her account, Trump called and said that La David Johnson “knew what he signed up for, but when it happens, it hurts.” The president has called the allegation “totally fabricated” and criticized Wilson.
Wilson has a long track record of taking on her constituents’ tragedies as her own, helping people grieve and rallying her community in tough times — especially those who come out of her program, news archives show.
Kelly explained in great detail how the military notifies the families of those who have lost a loved one on the battlefield. He seemed to be describing a situation similar to what he went through himself when he shared with The Post in 2011 what it was like to get the news that his own son had died at war. Here’s what Greg Jaffe wrote then:
Kelly would struggle to describe the pain he felt that day on his front porch. “It was disorienting, almost debilitating,” he wrote in an email. “At the same time my mind went through in detail every memory and image I had of Robert from the delivery room to the voice mail he’d left a few days before he died. . . . It was as graphic as if I was watching a video. . . . It really did seem like hours but was little more than a second or so.”
Kelly composed himself and moved down his front steps to speak with Dunford’s wife and walk his friends into the house. [Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., a close friend, had come to inform Kelly of his son’s death.] His wife, Karen, was still asleep. “I then did the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life,” Kelly said. “I walked upstairs, woke Karen to the news and broke her heart.”
Kelly repeatedly stated during the briefing that those who have never had to endure what his family or the Johnson family have endured could never understand the pain they went through.
But for some Americans, family is a broader concept that goes beyond the nuclear family often elevated in traditional circles.
No one would argue that Kelly is not qualified to talk about grieving a loved one. But he also can’t know who is privy to the Johnsons’ grief, and who was in their inner circle in one of their saddest and most sacred moments.