Kelly ‘Stunned’ That Dem Rep. Criticized Trump’s Call To Soldier’s Widow

Oliver Contreras/SIPPL Sipa USA

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly defended President Donald Trump and harshly criticized a Democratic congresswoman on Thursday, in a lengthy and emotional statement from the White House Briefing Room podium that included a mention of his son, who died when he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010.

At the White House press briefing Thursday, Kelly said he was “stunned” that Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) listened in on Trump’s call to the widow of a fallen soldier earlier this week. Both Wilson and Sgt. La David Johnson’s childhood guardian said that when Trump called to offer his condolences to Johnson’s widow, he had said that Johnson “knew what he was signing up for.” Wilson said Johnson’s widow had tearfully observed after the call that Trump didn’t know her fallen husband’s name.

Wilson said everyone in the car heard the call with Trump, as the soldier’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, had set her device to speakerphone.

Kelly attacked Wilson for relaying the contents of the call to members of the media.

I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” he said. “A member of Congress who listened in the on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife.”

“John Kelly’s trying to keep his job,” Wilson told POLITICO on Thursday. “He will say anything. There were other people who heard what I heard.”

Kelly said he saw Wilson’s listening into to Trump’s call with Myeshia Johnson as part of a pattern in the degradation of certain “sacred” parts of American life: “Women,” “life,” “religion,” and “gold star families,” the latter perhaps being a reference to the Khan family’s outspoken criticism of Trump during the 2016 campaign, which was met with attacks from Trump.

“You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country,” he said. “Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we’ve seen 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. But 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 continued, referring to Rep. Wilson: “When I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this Earth. And you can always find them, because they’re at Arlington National Cemetery.”

“John Kelly’s trying to keep his job,” Wilson told POLITICO on Thursday. “He will say anything. There were other people who heard what I heard.”

Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or coast guardsmen in combat,” Kelly had said at the top of his remarks to reporters. “So let me tell you what happens.”

Kelly described each step in minute detail, his voice trembling.

“They are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that self service to the nation is not only appropriate but required,” he said. “But that’s alright.”

Trump ignited the firestorm on Monday, when he was asked why he had not yet publicly mentioned the deaths of four Green Berets in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. In making his first public statement about the four deaths, Trump accused former presidents of not sufficiently comforting the grieving families of fallen service members. The following day, he told Fox News Radio’s Brian Kilmeade that the media should ask Kelly if Obama had called him when his son died.

Kelly said Thursday that he had told Trump Obama had not called him when his son died.

“That was not a criticism,” Kelly said. “That was just to simply say, I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing. I don’t believe President Bush called in all cases.”

Kelly also suggested Trump had gotten his line that Sgt. Johnson “knew what he was signing up for” from him.

“And he said to me, ‘What do I say’” Kelly recalled Trump asking him, before calling the families of those lost in Niger.

“I said to him, sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,” Kelly continued. “But let me tell you what I tell them, let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me, because he was my casualty officer.”

“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.’”

Watch the full press briefing below:

This post has been updated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously assistant editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at mshuham@talkingpointsmemo.com and on Twitter @mattshuham.
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