General Kelly, in an Emotional Statement, Defends Trump; Discusses Son's Death.
“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” Kelly told reporters at Thursday’s White House press briefing. “A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife — and in his way tried to express that opinion that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero.”
“He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted,” Kelly continued, referring to slain Sgt. La David Johnson. “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. That was the message.”
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) told reporters this week that Trump told Johnson's widow in a condolence call that he knew what he signed up for, a remark she framed as an insensitive comment the commander in chief lobbed at a grieving widow. She said she heard part of the conversation over speakerphone and said others were listening, too, including Johnson’s mother, who told The Washington Post that Trump had disrespected her family.
“John Kelly’s trying to keep his job,” Wilson told POLITICO on Thursday. “He will say anything. There were other people who heard what I heard.”
The former Marine general told reporters he initially advised Trump against making calls to the families of the four soldiers who were killed earlier this month in an ambush in Niger. Kelly invoked his own experience of his son being killed in Afghanistan in 2010 to explain his view on the emotionally charged issue.
“If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There’s no perfect way to make that phone call,” Kelly said. “When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was he not do it. Because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members, are looking forward to.”
Kelly confirmed what Trump and later White House officials told reporters earlier this week: that former President Barack Obama did not call him after his son died after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan.
“He asked me about previous presidents, and I said I can tell you that President Obama, who was my commander in chief when I was on active duty, did not call my family,” Kelly said. “That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing. I don’t believe President Bush called in all cases. I don’t believe any president, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high, that presidents call.”
Kelly said the company commander, defense secretary, service chief and the president typically write letters to families.
“Typically the only phone calls the family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies,” Kelly 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, and yeah, the letters count to a degree, but there’s not much that really can take the edge off what a family member’s going through.”
“That is what the president tried to say to the four families the other day,” Kelly explained. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation — absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.”
Kelly offered more sharp words about Wilson, saying she showed "selfish" behavior.
"So I still hope as you write your stories, and I appeal to America that let's not let this maybe last thing that's held sacred in our society, a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country, let's try to somehow keep that sacred," Kelly told reporters. "But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress."