Donald Trump’s chief of staff, General John Kelly, defended the president in an emotional press conference delivered on October 19 as controversy engulfed the president over his treatment of Gold Star families in phone calls. Kelly said he was so stunned and brokenhearted by a congresswoman’s criticism of Trump’s phone call to a Gold Star family that he went to Arlington National Cemetery to walk among the “stones” of the nation’s heroes. In general, Kelly called on Americans to keep service members’ ultimate sacrifice “sacred,” and he labeled the congresswoman’s comments “selfish.”
Kelly also confirmed that President Obama did not call his family when his own son, Robert, died in Afghanistan in the line of duty. You can watch the entire video below of the October 19 Kelly press conference. In the past, Kelly had often declined to speak about his son, but he laid some of his emotions bare in the press conference.
The congresswoman that Kelly was referring to is Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), who ignited a round of criticism against the president when she said that Trump told Myeshia Johnson that her husband, La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger, “must have known what he signed up for.” The mother of fallen service member La David Johnson has also spoken out and said she believes Trump disrespected her son in the call to his widow, by making that remark.
Kelly says, though, that he is the one who suggested what Trump should say. He started out the press conference by outlining what happens when a service member dies in combat. Johnson was the father of a 2-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, both of whom were standing alongside their pregnant mother, Myeshia Johnson, as the commercial flight carrying his casket touched down at Miami International Airport. You can read a full transcript of Kelly’s remarks here.
Wilson is challenging comments that General Kelly made toward the end of the press conference. As The Miami Herald put it, “Kelly criticized Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson for claiming ‘she got the money’ for the new building during the 2015 ceremony while he and others in the audience were focused on the heroism of agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, killed during a 1986 shootout with bank robbers south of Miami.” Wilson later said that Kelly got the story wrong. “She said Washington approved the money before she was even in Congress. The legislation she sponsored named the building after Grogan and Dove, a law enacted just days before the ceremony,” The Herald reported.
In the beginning of the news conference, Kelly said “most Americans don’t know what happens” when service members are lost in combat. Their bodies are “packed in ice” and flown to Europe, where they are “packed in ice again, and flown to Dover.” The fallen service members are then embalmed and “meticuously dressed” in their uniforms to be escorted home. Then, he said, a casualty officer “breaks the heart” of a family. “Who are these men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces,” said Kelly. “Most of you, as Americans don’t know them… but they are the very best that this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there is nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate but required.”
Letters are written to the family, including from the president, Secretary of Defense, commanders and many others. Typically, the only phone calls families received in the past is from their buddies, said Kelly. When Kelly’s son was killed in Afghanistan, his friends called Kelly about what a great guy he was, he said, and those were the only calls that really mattered. “Some presidents have elected to call. All presidents, I believe, have elected to send letters,” Kelly said. “If you elect to call a family like this, it’s about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There is no perfect way to make that phone call.” He said that he initially recommended that Trump not call the family members at all.
Kelly said he told Trump that President Obama “did not call my family. That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say, I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing.” He said he didn’t believe President Bush called in all cases. He said he believed all presidents write but that when casualty counts are high, he didn’t think that all presidents call Gold Star families.
Trump had also sparked criticism when he claimed Obama did not call Gold Star families before recalibrating the statement to say he didn’t think the former president often did so. Kelly said Trump asked him for advice and said “very bravely” Trump “does make those calls.” He said that Trump decided to call the family members of four service members fallen in Niger. Kelly said a pre call is made to see if the family members want to accept the call. “He said to me, ‘What can I say?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, there is nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.'”
But, Kelly said, he told Trump that he was told when his son died, “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 are at war. And when he died, the four cases in Niger and my son’s case in Afghanistan, he died surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That’s what the president tried to say to the four families.” Kelly said he was stunned and brokenhearted “by what I saw a member of Congress doing… A member of Congress who listened into a phone call between the president of the United States and a young wife.”
Kelly said Trump basically followed his advice to deliver the above message. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. I thought, at least that was sacred. 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. 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 and woman to die on the battlefield. I just thought that that might be sacred.” Kelly said he was so upset he went to walk “among the finest men and women on this earth” and he walked among the “stones” of Arlington National Cemetery for more than an hour.
Read more about La David Johnson here and his life and sacrifice here:
Read more about Robert Kelly, John Kelly’s son here: