WASHINGTON — Invoking the death of his son, a Marine, in Afghanistan, White House chief of staff John Kelly delivered an impassioned defense on Thursday of President Trump’s outreach to families of four Americans recently killed in Niger. Kelly also denounced Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., as “selfish” for criticizing Trump for his message to one soldier’s widow.
“I appeal to America: 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 said in an unusual appearance in the White House briefing room. “It eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.”
Wilson had said that Trump callously told Myeshia Johnson — whose husband Army Sgt. La David Johnson was killed in an Oct. 4 patrol in Niger — that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” The congresswoman, a Johnson family friend, reportedly overheard parts of the conversation while riding in the same car as the widow. Trump flatly denied that account on Twitter Wednesday and said he had “proof.” The soldier’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, reportedly said that the president had “disrespected” her family.
But Kelly, a retired Marine general, broadly confirmed Wilson’s account — while explaining that Trump had drawn inspiration from what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, told him when Robert Kelly was killed after stepping on a landmine while on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010.
“He said ‘Kell, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into, by joining the Marines — that 1 percent — he knew what the possibilities were, because we’re at war,” Kelly said. “‘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,” Kelly said. “I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted, 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, and, in his way, tried to express that opinion — he was a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted — there was no reason to enlist, he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, exactly the people he wanted to be with, when his life was taken. That was the message.”
Kelly also said that then-President Barack Obama had not called him when the younger Kelly was killed.
“That was not a criticism, that was just to simply say I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing,” Kelly said, underlining that past presidents, especially those on whose watch casualty numbers have been high, typically have not called.
That was a response to the outraged reaction to Trump falsely telling reporters on Tuesday that Obama never called the families of fallen soldiers. The president had been responding to questions about why he kept silent for nearly two weeks after the Niger ambush.
For much of the unusual briefing, Kelly drew attention to the divide between Americans who serve in the armed forces, as well as their friends and loved ones, and between Americans who have not worn the uniform and don’t know anyone who has. He announced he would only take questions from reporters who knew a Gold Star family, scolded those shielded from America’s longest war, and complained that the country had lost what used to be seen as “sacred” when he was a child.
“I just thought, the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred,” Kelly said. (Earlier, he had suggested that respect for Gold Star families was tarnished by last summer’s political conventions, which both featured partisan speeches by the parents of men killed in combat.)
“You know, when I was a kid, every man in my life was a veteran — World War II, Korea — and there was the draft,” the retired general said. “These young people today, they don’t do it for any other reason than their selfless sense of selfless devotion to this great nation.”
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