Just hours after White House chief of staff John Kelly made an unexpected and emotional defense of how President Trump handled a phone call to the family of a fallen solider that was widely criticized, Trump contradicted the retired Marine general in a tweet calling the call description "a total lie."
Kelly, whose own son died in combat, criticized the politicization of the president's phone call to the family of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, and from the podium at the daily White House briefing, spoke of how difficult the phone call could be. He said he instructed the president on what to say, including telling the family that Johnson "knew what he was getting himself into," and characterized it as an attempt of telling his family he had died a warrior.
That comment has been at the center of the latest firestorm to engulf the White House after Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat who was listening in on the phone call, and Johnson's mother, called the statement disrespectful. Kelly, addressing reporters, confirmed the president made the comment and tried to offer context to it.
But hours after Kelly's comments to the press, Trump took to Twitter and doubled down on his assertion that he had never made the comment, attacking Wilson by calling her "wacky" and alleging once more her version of the phone call was "a total lie."
He also alleged Wilson listened into the phone call secretly. Wilson, however, was accompanying the family and has been a friend of the Johnson's for decades.
The president's tweet was just the latest example of Trump contradicting his own staff.
Kelly's remarks were at times powerful — such as when he poignantly described how the military informs families that a service member has died — and deeply personal, making a rare mention of the fact that his own son died while serving in Afghanistan. He was also political, seeming to skip over the fact that his boss has stirred widespread divisiveness about military service.
Kelly also explained the complexities around a president addressing the family of a fallen service member, known as a Gold Star family. It became a huge issue after the family of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in a surprise attack in Niger, said that Trump disrespected them during his condolence call. Trump had already been facing questions about why he hadn't reached out sooner.
Army Sgt. La David Johnson
Kelly directly addressed the recent controversy over President Trump's call on Tuesday to the family of Johnson.
On Tuesday, Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from Johnson's hometown, was traveling with his family while en route to greet his casket when Trump called. They placed the call on speakerphone.
Wilson then told a local reporter that Trump said Johnson "knew what he signed up for...but when it happens it hurts anyway." Johnson's mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, later said Wilson's memory of the call was correct, telling the Washington Post, "President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband."
But Kelly lashed out at Wilson on Thursday, saying she shouldn't have been listening in on the call. (However, Kelly also added that he was on the call on the president's side.)
"I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing," Kelly said of Wilson speaking to the media.
Kelly defended Trump's phone call, yet also seemed to confirm Wilson's account.
"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," said Kelly, whose son, Robert, died in Afghanistan in 2010 after stepping on a landmine. "There's no reason to enlist, he enlisted, and 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. That was the message that was transmitted. It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation.
"And I thought at least that was sacred."
After defending Trump's call with Johnson's mother, Kelly spoke about his shock at hearing how the issue of soldier's death on the battlefield was no longer sacred.
He went on to list numerous things that he said had lost their sacred values, including "women," "life," "religion," and "Gold Star families":
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've seen from recent cases. Life was sacred. That's gone. 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 woman to die in the battlefield, I thought that might be sacred.
Kelly's mention of "Gold Star families" and "convention" was in reference to the 2016 Democratic National Convention speech by Khizr Khan, father of Humayun Khan, an Army captain who killed in 2004 in the Iraq War. Khan, the father, used the speech to criticize then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's proposed policies, including the ban of immigration from a number of Muslim-majority countries. Trump responded by repeatedly attacking the family.
Kelly said that after hearing the news of Wilson's remarks he wanted to "collect his thoughts" and "walk among the finest men and women on this Earth."
"And you can always find them," Kelly said, "because they're in Arlington National Cemetery."
Kelly said he walked for an hour and a half among the graves of service members outside Washington, DC, "some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed."
When a Service Member Dies
At the beginning of the press conference, Kelly recounted in detail what happens when a member of the armed forces is killed. He went into detail, revealing a side of war that few Americans know.
Most Americans don't know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, and Marines or Coast Guardsmen in combat, so let me tell you what happens. Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter and sends them home.
Their first stop along the way is when they are packed in ice, typically at the airhead, and then they're flown to Europe, where they're then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals they've earned, the emblems of their service, and puts them on another airplane to take them home... While that's happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door. Typically the mom and dad will answer, the wife.
And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places. If the parents are divorced, three different places. The casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member, and stays with this family until, well, for a long, long time. That's what happens.
Kelly then spoke about how when his son died in 2010, former president Obama did not make a phone call to him or his family.
"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. I believe they all write," Kelly said.
Kelly was addressing the president's comments during a Fox News Radio interview on Tuesday, when Trump said, "As far as other presidents, I don't know, you could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama? I don't know what Obama's policy was."
Kelly ended his portion of the White House press conference with a few questions from the reporters in attendance.
"Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling?" Kelly said, looking around for hands.
"Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling?" he asked, as some reporters' hands went up.
"Okay," he said. "You get the question."
Khizr Khan's name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.
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