John Kelly 'stunned' by criticism of Trump's 'sacred' call to grieving war widow

politics | Oct 19, 2017 | By Martin Barillas

At a press briefing on Thursday, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly admonished a Democratic congresswoman for politicizing a call President Donald Trump made to the grieving widow of a Green Beret who was killed in action in Niger. Kelly, a retired Marine general, said he was “heartbroken” by verbal assaults launched by Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who was with the widow and listening in on the call.

Wilson appeared in several television interviews in which she described Trump’s call as insensitive. She later said, after Trump challenged her characterizations of the call, that the president is “crazy.”

At the White House briefing, Kelly said, “It stuns me that a member of congress would listen in on that conversation.” He expressed regret that there apparently remains little reverence for what he said were held sacred by Americans when he was growing up. Among them, he said, were respect for women, religion, and Gold Star families. “Let’s try to somehow keep that sacred,” he said of the president’s call to families of fallen service members. “But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.”

“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” Kelly said.

“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. You know when I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or a woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that might be sacred.”

Kelly said Wilson's remarks were “selfish” and shocking. He added that the congresswoman spoke “in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise,” Kelly said. In the hours after Kelly spoke, Wilson did not issue a response on Twitter or elsewhere on social media. However, she told POLITICO, “John Kelly’s trying to keep his job. He will say anything. There were other people who heard what I heard.”

Rep. Wilson said she was with widow Myeshia Johnson on Tuesday when the president called to share his condolences over the loss of Sgt. La David Johnson, her husband, who was one of four Special Forces members killed in an October 4 ambush in Niger. She claimed that fallen soldier’s widow wept when the president spoke to her. The US is currently assisting the government of Niger in fighting off Muslim terrorists. The widow Johnson was traveling by car to Miami International Airport to greet the body of her husband. According to Wilson, Trump told Mrs. Johnson that her husband “knew what he signed up for, but when it happens it hurts anyway.”

Kelly -- whose son was killed by a landmine in Afghanistan -- said that Trump was trying to say that Sgt. Johnson was “a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting into,” while commending him for serving his country. He said that all presidents write a letter to the families of military personnel killed in action, while some presidents make a phone call. Kelly confirmed that Obama did not call him after his son was killed in Afghanistan, which was the claim made by the president in defense of claims that he did not call grieving families quick enough. 

Kelly said that he did not expect a call from Obama, but was merely stating the fact. “That’s not a negative thing,” he said.

Kelly said that presidents do not typically call the families of fallen service members, and added that he recommended that Trump not call. “If you elect to call a family like this it is about the most difficult thing you can imagine. There’s no perfect way to make that phone call,” the retired Marine said. “[Trump] called four people the other day and express his condolences in the best way he could and he said to me, ‘What do I say?'”

Kelly mentioned in his emotional remarks that he told Trump what Marine Gen. Joe Dunford told him when Kelly’s own son died. “He said, ‘Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining… that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we’re at war. And when he died… he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day.”



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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