- The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Donald Trump’s call to the widow of a slain soldier, saying the president intended to praise the soldier’s bravery.
- Kelly said he advised the president on what to say and confirmed that Trump told the widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for” when he enlisted.
- Kelly also confirmed that President Barack Obama did not call him after Kelly’s son was killed in action but said this was “not a negative thing.”
The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, on Thursday responded to a firestorm of criticism President Donald Trump has faced over a congresswoman’s account of his call to the widow of a slain soldier.
Kelly defended Trump, saying there was “no perfect way to make that phone call” to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four US Army Special Forces troops killed in action during a mission in Niger earlier this month, but that the president intended to commend Johnson’s bravery.
“I said to him, ‘Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,'” Kelly told reporters at a press briefing.
Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general whose son was killed in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan, said he advised Trump on what to say during calls he made to the families of the four troops.
Of Johnson, Kelly said: “He’s a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted.”
He added: “And he 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.”
Rep. Frederica Wilson, a friend of Johnson’s family, said on Tuesday that Trump told the widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for” when he enlisted.
On Wednesday morning, Trump accused Wilson of lying about what he said. He added that he had “proof” to support his denial, but he did not elaborate.
“Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!” Trump wrote.
Wilson responded to Trump’s accusation on Wednesday morning, calling the president “a sick man” who “feels no pity or sympathy for anyone.”
Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, said on Wednesday that she agreed with Wilson’s account of the call.
“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Jones-Johnson told The Washington Post.
Trump then doubled down on his denial of the congresswoman’s account of the call.
“I didn’t say what that congresswoman said, didn’t say it all. She knows it,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday, later adding: “I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren’t too surprised to hear that.”
Kelly said he was angered and saddened by Wilson’s criticism of the call, adding that he walked around Arlington National Cemetery for over an hour to collect his thoughts.
“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted, at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” he said.
He added: “And when I listened to this woman, what she was saying, 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.”
Kelly also confirmed Trump’s claim earlier this week that President Barack Obama did not call Kelly’s family after his son was killed in action.
Trump “asked me about previous presidents, and I said, ‘I can tell you that President Obama … did not call my family,” Kelly said. “That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing.”
Watch a clip of Kelly’s comments: