White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly on Thursday unequivocally defended President Trump’s calls to the families of four fallen soldiers, using his credibility as a retired general who lost a son on the battlefield to try to help his boss contain a public relations crisis.
In an extraordinary, emotional appearance in the White House briefing room, Kelly described in painful detail the trauma of losing service members. He also excoriated a Democratic congresswoman for publicizing her account of Trump’s call Tuesday with the widow of one of the four soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger.
The former homeland security secretary said that Trump had sought his counsel this week about making those calls and that he thought the president spoke "bravely" and "expressed his condolences in the best way that he could."
“If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you can imagine,” Kelly said. “There’s no perfect way to make that phone call.”
His voice growing thin, Kelly expressed regret and apparent indignation that the commander in chief’s interactions with Gold Star families had become a subject of public debate for four straight days. “I just thought that that might be sacred,” Kelly lamented.
What Kelly did not acknowledge was that it was Trump who initiated that public discussion.
Asked by a reporter Monday why he had been publicly silent about the Niger ambush for 12 days, Trump claimed to have called all Gold Star families during his tenure and immediately politicized the issue by falsely accusing former president Barack Obama and other predecessors of doing so rarely or never. At the time of that news conference, Trump had yet to call any relatives of the soldiers killed in Niger.
The next day, Trump also suggested that reporters should ask Kelly whether then-President Obama had called him when his son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly, died in Afghanistan seven years ago.
Kelly, who had gone to great lengths to avoid injecting his personal story into political debates, did not reveal Thursday how he felt about Trump’s invoking his son. He confirmed that there had been no call from Obama but also said he did not fault the former president for not making one. In fact, Kelly said, he had advised Trump not to call the loved ones of dead soldiers.
“I said to him, ‘Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,’ ” Kelly said.
The 67-year-old retired Marine Corps general also sought to claim the moral high ground by deploring the degradation of modern American society. When he was growing up, he said, women, religion and the dignity of life were sacred. Now, he said, they no longer are.
There was evident irony in Kelly’s making that particular point in defense of Trump, whose presidential campaign last year was marked by name-calling, harsh rhetoric about Muslims, Mexicans and other minorities, and allegations of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women.
The appearance was an attempt to tamp down a self-created and ballooning controversy over Trump’s contacts with the families of fallen soldiers. The Washington Post on Wednesday identified at least a half-dozen Gold Star families who were not called by Trump as he had claimed and reported that Trump had promised one grieving father $25,000 in June but had never sent a check; the White House said it was sent this week after The Post asked about the case.
Kelly specifically addressed Trump’s call with Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, and reserved his harshest criticism for Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), a friend of the family’s who was with Myeshia Johnson when the president called and who listened to the conversation on speakerphone.
Kelly said he was “stunned,” “appalled” and “brokenhearted” to learn Wednesday morning that Wilson had criticized Trump’s tone and choice of words in media interviews. He accused the congresswoman of “selfish” behavior and of speaking “in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise.”
But Kelly also appeared to effectively confirm Wilson’s account by echoing some of the language she had described — an account that Trump had called “totally fabricated.”
Kelly said Trump’s message to Johnson was: “He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And 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 also said he was shocked that Wilson had listened in on the call, although Kelly was among the staffers who listened in on the president’s line, according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“When I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this earth — and you can always find them, because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery,” Kelly said, adding that he spent 90 minutes walking among the tombstones there Wednesday collecting his thoughts.
Wilson told Politico in response to Kelly’s remarks that Trump’s chief of staff is “trying to keep his job. He will say anything. There were other people who heard what I heard.”
Johnson’s aunt, who raised him as her own son after his mother died when he was young, has backed up Wilson’s version of events.
Late Thursday, Trump continued his criticism of Wilson, tweeting: “The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”
Surprising reporters Thursday afternoon, Kelly took the lectern from Sanders about two minutes into the daily briefing and spoke for about 18 minutes. He answered a few questions before departing, but only from journalists who said they knew Gold Star parents.
Kelly, who became the highest-ranking military official to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan, watched both his sons follow him into the Marine Corps. At the time Robert died, by stepping on a land mine in southern Afghanistan in 2010, Kelly and his two sons had participated in a combined 11 combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kelly noted Thursday that his surviving son is serving in Iraq. He has been private about Robert’s death, even though both his and his sons’ military service clearly informs his thinking on White House foreign policy and national security decisions, several White House officials said.
“In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really matter,” Kelly said. “If you elect to call a family like this — and it’s about the most difficult thing you could imagine — there’s no perfect way to make that phone call.”
Kelly began his remarks with a stark and meticulous explanation of what happens to fallen military personnel overseas.
“Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine and sends them home,” he said. Their first stop along the way is when they’re packed in ice, typically at the airhead, and then they’re flown to, usually, Europe, where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base.”
He also walked through the process of what happens when “a casualty officer” visits the home of a fallen soldier.
“The casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until — well, for a long, long time,” Kelly said. “Even after the interment. So that’s what happens. Who are these young men and women? They are the best one percent this country produces.”
Aside from the controversy over Trump’s outreach to the families of the slain soldiers, the administration is facing mounting questions about the deadly episode itself.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) threatened Thursday to use subpoena powers if Trump administration officials are not more forthcoming about the attack.
“There’s a mind-set over there that they’re a unicameral government,” McCain said, accusing the Trump administration of intentionally trying to keep Congress in the dark about the military’s foreign engagements and saying “it was easier under Obama.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took issue with media coverage of the aftermath of the ambush, after which Johnson was found to be missing and his body was not recovered for about two days.
“I would just ask you not to question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether they did everything they could to bring everyone out at once,” Mattis said.
In the White House briefing room, Kelly said "there's an investigation ongoing," but added: "An investigation doesn't mean anything was wrong. An investigation doesn't mean people's heads are going to roll. The fact is, they need to find out what happened and why it happened."
Shortly afterward, he acknowledged, "I actually know a lot more than I'm letting on . . . but I'm not going to tell you."