UPDATED with responses: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said he was “stunned” that “a member of Congress would have listened in” on a President’s phone call to the widow of a fallen soldier, as Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson did.
“I thought at least that was sacred,” Kelly said at today’s White Houses press briefing, during which you could hear a pin drop.
“When I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor – that’s obviously not the case as we see from recent cases,” Kelly said, in an apparent reference to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and his boss’ Access Hollywood tape.
“Life was sacred; that’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families – I think that left at the convention over the summer,” he continued, in yet another apparent ding of his boss, President Donald Trump, making two so far.
“But I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield – I just thought that might still be sacred,” Kelly said.
“And when I listened to this woman, and what she was saying, what she was doing on TV… the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go walk among the finest men and women on this earth. You can always find them at Arlington National Cemetery,” Kelly added dramatically. He said he walked there for 90 minutes “among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”
Addressing reporters, Kelly said: “I hope, as you write your stories, let’s not let this last thing that is sacred — a young man or woman giving his or her life for country — let’s somehow keep that sacred. It eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.”
Wilson fired back later in the day.
“John Kelly’s trying to keep his job. He will say anything,” she told Politico.
On Tuesday night, Wilson claimed Trump called Mysehia Johnson, widow of La David Johnson, as Johnson was driving to the airport to receive his body; the Army sergeant was one of four Americans killed in an attack in Niger earlier this month. Wilson said Trump reduced Mysehia Johnson to tears when he told her, “I’m sure he knew what he was signed up for, but when it happens, it hurts anyway.”
Wilson, who had known the soldier since childhood, was in the vehicle with Johnson and said she heard that part of the call on speaker phone. Trump insisted he said no such thing, but Kelly’s subsequent remarks told a very different story than Trump had pitched.
Kelly today defended Trump’s phone call, taking responsibility for the President’s words to Johnson’s widow.
“There is no perfect way to make that phone call,” Kelly said, revealing his first recommendation was that Trump not make the calls because it’s not a phone call family members are looking forward to. Trump asked him about previous Presidents, and Kelly reported he told Trump, “I can tell you President Obama … did not call my family,” which, Kelly told reporters, had not been intended as a criticism, just a statement of fact in answer to a question.
Trump elected to make the phone call to the families of the four soldiers killed in the Niger ambush. “He called four people … and expressed condolences in the best way he could,” Kelly insisted.
Before the calls, Trump sought his advice on the wording, and Kelly said he responded: “Let me tell you what my best friends told me: He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were, because we’re at war. And, when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on Earth, his friends.
“That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day.”
Media blowback came fast and furious:
Kelly had opened his appearance very dramatically, saying he guessed most in the briefing room had no idea what happens when a soldier is killed in combat.
So he told them. In great detail.
He described how soldiers wrap the dead in “whatever passes for a shroud” and puts the victim on a helicopter where they are packed on ice and flown, usually to Europe. There, they are packed on ice again, and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where they are embalmed, dressed in uniform and then put on another plane with a casualty officer who escorts the body home.
Kelly recommended “a very, very good movie to watch, if you haven’t seen it, is Taking Chance.” The HBO movie is based on the experience of Marine Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, who, during the Iraq War, escorted the body of Marine PFC Chance Phelps back to his home.
Phelps, Kelly said, was killed on his command “right next to me.”