White House Chief of Staff John Kelly took to the White House podium Thursday to take responsibility for a few controversies surrounding President Donald Trump this week.
The first was Trump’s delay in calling the families of four soldiers killed in Niger on Oct. 4. On that note, Kelly said he told Trump three days ago that he recommended not calling the families. Kelly said to his knowledge, all presidents send letters but not all presidents call.
“It’s not the phone call that family members are looking forward to,” Kelly said.
He added that the only phone calls that “really matter” in those moments are the ones you receive from your deceased loved one’s friends. Kelly’s son, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 when he stepped on a land mine.
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During that conversation, Kelly said Trump asked him how other presidents handled phone calls. That’s when Kelly told him, as an example, that former President Barack Obama had not called him after his son’s death.
“That’s not a criticism ... that’s not a negative thing,” Kelly added, saying he was just giving it as an example to Trump at the time.
Trump came under fire Monday after saying – in response to a question about the soldiers killed in Niger – that Obama and other former presidents had not made calls to the families of fallen soldiers.
“The traditional way, you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said.
The lastest piece of the controversy came when Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., said Trump told the widow of one of the fallen Niger soldiers that her husband “must have known what he signed up for.” Wilson said she was there when Trump called Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, and the account was confirmed by Cowanda Jones-Johnson, the soldier’s mother, to the Washington Post.
Trump denied that account in a tweet and said he had “proof.” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president had not taped the conversation, but that several staffers, including Kelly, had been present for the call.
But Kelly seemed to confirm the comment in the press briefing Thursday, though suggested that the nature of the comment had been misunderstood. He said Trump had asked Kelly for advice on what to say in the phone calls.
“He said to me ‘What do I say?’ and I said to him, ‘Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. But let me tell you what I tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend 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 the Marines, that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we’re at war,’ ” Kelly said. “And when he died, the four in Niger and my son in Afghanistan, when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.”
Wilson, a principal to the soldier’s father and who started a mentorship program the father was in, characterized the remarks differently in an interview with MSNBC Wednesday.
She said Trump “was almost like joking. He said, ‘Well, I guess you knew’ — something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ You know, just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. That’s the way we interpreted it. It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”
The mother also chracterized the call as disrespectful to the Post.
Kelly was sharply critical of Wilson’s presence during the phone call.
“It stuns me that a member of Congress would listen in on that conversation,” Kelly said. “It absolutely stuns me. I thought that, at least, was sacred.”