Reported By Jordan Fabian and Jonathan Easley – 10/19/17 03:23 PM EDT
White House chief of staff John Kelly on Thursday delivered a stirring, personal defense of President Trump’s call to the widow of a fallen U.S. soldier, pushing back on mounting criticism of the president’s handling of the conversation. Kelly said he was “stunned” by Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson‘s (Fla.) negative description of Trump’s call to the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed during an ambush in Niger.
“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. I would have thought that was sacred,” Kelly said during a surprise appearance in the White House press briefing room.
“He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,” Kelly remembered being told by his casualty officer, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“He knew what he was getting into by joining that one percent,” he added. “He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war.”
The controversy ignited late Tuesday when Wilson revealed Trump told Myeshia Johnson her husband “knew what he was getting into.”
The Florida lawmaker said she was in a car when Trump called and listened on speakerphone. She was invited to be present because she had a longstanding relationship with the family, and mentored the soldier through a program she founded. Wilson said Trump was “so insensitive” and caused Johnson emotional distress.
Her description was backed up by the soldier’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who said she felt disrespected.
A spokesperson for Wilson has not returned a request for comment.
Kelly said the message he received as a father of a fallen soldier was what Trump was trying to convey to Johnson’s widow, Mysehia.
“He expressed his condolences in the best way that he could,” he said.
Kelly’s extraordinary appearance was designed to quell the controversy over Trump’s comments that has engulfed the White House.
The episode has raised questions about the president’s ability to empathize with the families of U.S. service members. Out of anyone on Trump’s team, Kelly is perhaps best equipped to speak authoritatively about the issue.
Kelly himself was drawn into the controversy after Trump, while defending himself, revealed former President Obama did not call Kelly to express condolences in 2010 after his son’s death.
The top aide refused to criticize Obama, saying that he believes most presidents have chosen to send letters, because calling the families of the fallen is “the most difficult thing you can imagine.”
“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. It was just to say that I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing.”
Kelly said that he initially advised Trump not to make the phone calls, but the president insisted. He said Trump was “brave” for making the calls, because they are even more difficult for someone who has not served or lost a loved one.
Kelly’s emotional and tense remarks were also a rebuke of the press, which the White House blames for politicizing the matter.
Trump’s claim that Obama and other past presidents rarely called the families of U.S. military personnel who died in battle set off a round of fact-checking by media outlets and calls to some families that Trump either did not contact or took several weeks to contact.
But Kelly said he would only take questions from those who claimed to have lost loved ones in combat, like he has, or personally know someone who has.
Kelly fielded only three questions, which focused on the U.S. troop presence in Niger, and was not asked if he approved of Trump’s decision to invoke his son during the flap.
Kelly began his appearance by explaining in painstaking detail what happens to the bodies of soldiers killed in action abroad, describing how the corpses of the fallen are packed in ice and moved from combat zones to bases in Europe and then to Dover Air Force Base. Casualty officers are then dispatched to the homes of relatives, where they “proceed to break the heart of the family.”
“They’re the best 1 percent this country produces,” Kelly said. “Most of you as Americans don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone that knows any one of them. But they’re the very best that this country produces.”