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John Kelly Defends Trump On Call To Grieving Family, But Gets Many Facts Wrong

John Kelly Briefing Room

During yesterday’s White House Press Briefing, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who has rarely appeared before the press or answered questions, came into the briefing room to defend the President against the charge that he was insensitive while speaking with the family of one of the soldiers who died on a mission in Niger, but in the process he also attacked a Member of Congress and relied on misrepresented facts to do so:

WASHINGTON — John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, delivered a searing, personal defense of President Trump’s phone call this week to the widow of a slain Army soldier, describing on Thursday the trauma of learning about his own son’s death in Afghanistan and calling the criticism of Mr. Trump’s condolences unfair.

In a public relations mission that was part emotional catharsis and part political attack, Mr. Kelly lashed out at Representative Frederica S. Wilson, Democrat of Florida, for publicizing the call between Mr. Trump and Myeshia Johnson, whose husband, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, was one of four American soldiers killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.

Mr. Kelly accused Ms. Wilson — who was in a car with Ms. Johnson when Mr. Trump called and is a longtime family friend — of being a publicity-seeking opportunist. He said that the congresswoman’s willingness to breach the confidentiality of Mr. Trump’s words is evidence of a broader decline in the values of an American society that no longer treats women, religion, “life” or Gold Star families as sacred.

“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation — absolutely stuns me,” Mr. Kelly said during a somber, 18-minute appearance in the White House briefing room. He said that he was so upset by Ms. Wilson’s appearances on TV news shows that he had to collect his thoughts by walking through the graves at Arlington National Cemetery for more than an hour.

Late Thursday night, Mr. Trump assailed Ms. Wilson in a tweet, accusing her of listening “SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”

Mr. Kelly struck a tone that was more even, if just as powerful. He displayed scorn for a society that he said does not appreciate the sacrifice of those in the military. “Most of you as Americans don’t know them,” he said, bemoaning that “there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate but required.”

A retired Marine general whose son Second Lt. Robert Kelly was slain in battle in 2010, Mr. Kelly has long guarded his personal story of loss even as he served as a high-profile public official. He broke that silence in dramatic fashion on Thursday, offering — from his personal and professional experience — a detailed, even excruciating description of what happens to the remains of those killed in combat, and how the grieving families back home are notified.

“Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud,” Mr. Kelly told an unusually hushed room filled with reporters. “They’re packed in ice, typically at the air head, and then they’re flown to — usually Europe, where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service.”

He testified to the deep pain that parents feel when they get an early-morning knock on the door from an official to tell them that their son or daughter has been killed in action. “The casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member,” Mr. Kelly said, his eyes reddening as he spoke.

And he described the moment that he got the knock on his own door: A military official telling him that his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,” Mr. Kelly recalled. “He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war.”

Mr. Kelly also revealed, apparently for the first time, that he was standing next to Pfc. Chance Phelps, the subject of the HBO movie “Taking Chance,” as the Marine private was killed by hostile fire in Anbar Province in Iraq. The movie, which recounted the return of the Marine’s remains, “is worth seeing,” Mr. Kelly said.

Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, said Mr. Kelly’s blunt remarks will have impact because of the stark contrast with an administration that has repeatedly lost credibility with the public.

“Its great power was you knew he was telling the truth, and in all specifics,” said Ms. Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist. “Kelly comes to the podium and it was credible, and you felt a kind of relief, and respect and gratitude.”

(…)

[The President’s conversation with Sgt. Johnson’s family]was first revealed by Ms. Wilson, who quoted Mr. Trump as saying that Sergeant Johnson “knew what he signed up for.” The congresswoman told reporters that she and the Johnson family were offended by the president’s bluntness.

Mr. Kelly’s initial grief on Thursday quickly gave way to an anger that was fueled by what he said was an unfair attack on his boss.

He said Mr. Trump was merely trying to express what Mr. Kelly had discussed with the president before the phone call — that soldiers like Sergeant Johnson were doing what they loved, and what they had chosen to do, when they were killed serving the country.

“That’s what the president tried to say to four families,” Mr. Kelly said. He later appeared to attack Ms. Wilson by noting that, during an emotional 2015 ceremony, a congresswoman had crassly claimed political credit for getting funding for an F.B.I. building in Miami that was named for fallen agents. Ms. Wilson’s congressional district includes parts of Miami.

“And we were stunned — stunned that she’d done it,” Mr. Kelly recalled, though he did not name Ms. Wilson. “Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”

Here’s the video of Kelly’s appearance yesterday:

Kelly’s statement was unusual both because he has only rarely talked to the press since becoming White House Chief of Staff and because it has been even rarer for him to comment publicly in any way on the death of his son, a topic about which he understandably is clearly still very emotional about. That being said, Kelly is now the White House Chief of Staff and serving under a controversial President. This means that he is as subject to scrutiny as anyone else, notwithstanding the White House’s claims today that he should not be questioned merely because he is a former Marine Corps General. That may well be the case, but he is now as much a politician as his boss and everyone else working in a political position in the White House, and his words are subject to the same amount of scrutiny as President Trump’s. In that respect, it’s worth noting that he engaged in some of the same attacking the messenger tactics that his boss does on a regular basis, and that he both omitted and misrepresented several things in his effort to defend the President and attack Congresswoman Wilson, who was the first person to report both what the President said and the fact that it not only didn’t comfort the Johnson family but apparently served only to offend and upset them even further.

Right off the top, for example, the assertion that Congresswoman Wilson was somehow acting improperly by listening in on the phone conversation between the President and Johnson’s widow ignores several important facts. According to numerous media reports since this matter became public, there has been a long friendship between Congresswoman Wilson and members of Johnson’s family to the extent that Wilson has known Sgt. Wilson since long before he enlisted in the military. Sgt. Wilson was also a graduate of a program run by Wilson’s office for young boys and girls in her District and had a direct relationship of his own with the Congresswoman. Additionally, Wilson has apparently spent long hours with other residents of her District who have had sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers killed in action over the past sixteen years. The Washington Post’s Derek Hawkins details many of these stories in his report on the Congresswoman’s relationship with the family and her community that was published prior to Kelly’s remarks. Additionally, it has been reported that the phone call itself occurred while Sgt. Johnson’s widow, accompanied by Wilson and other family members, was on her way to the airport to meet the casket of her husband as it arrived from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and that it was Johnson’s widow who put the call on speakerphone so that everyone in this car could hear it. In other words, there was nothing unusual in the fact that Wilson was present for the call, although perhaps one can question her decision to make the details of that call and the family’s reaction to it public. Given all of this, it’s clear that Kelly’s attack on Wilson was unwarranted and out of line.

In addition to attacking Wilson over her presence on the call with the President, he also attacked her over an incident in 2015 involving the dedication of a new F.B.I. Building that was named in honor of two F.B.I. agents killed in the line of duty, claiming that she used her speech at the dedication to talk about her involvement in getting funding for the building without acknowledging the men to whom the building was dedicated to, or who else may have been involved in the process. Subsequent press reports have shown that this is a misrepresentation of Wilson’s remarks. The Miami Herald was first out of the gate in this regard, with a report on Kelly’s remarks that included Wilson’s response and noted that the former General’s remarks about what happened in 2015 were not an accurate representation of what happened. The Sun-Sentinel of Broward County followed that report up with a report of its own that included video of the 2015 event Kelly was talking about that clearly shows that he did not represent what happened accurately, as the Washington Post’s summary notes:

a video from the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale of Wilson’s remarks at the April 10, 2015, dedication shows that she said no such thing during a ceremony that included then-FBI Director James B. Comey. In her nine-minute address, Wilson did recount how she went into “attack mode” to ensure that Congress and Obama expedited a bill to name the building after two fallen FBI agents who were from the area in about four weeks.

When initially told that such legislation could take as long as a year, Wilson recalled, “I said — I’m a school principal — and I said, excuse my French, ‘Aw, hell no, we’re going to get this done.'” Wilson spread credit to others for helping in the effort, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). She also told the stories of the heroism of the two agents, Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, who were killed in a shootout with bank robbers in 1986 in Miami.

In an interview Thursday with McClatchy news service, Wilson said of Kelly’s charge: ”That is crazy that I got [the money] and Mr. Obama just gave it to me. That building was funded long before I got to Congress. I didn’t say that. I have staff, people who write the speeches. You can’t say that.”‘

You can watch the full video of the 2015 event at the Sun-Sentinel link above, and it’s clear that Kelly was wrong in his representation of what Wilson said at the time. Whether that is due to the fact that he isn’t recalling the event accurately or that he’s consciously lying is something I’ll leave up to the reader to decide.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Kylopod says:

    It’s an ironclad rule. Nobody who joins the Trump Administration survives with their dignity intact.

    NOBODY.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 36 Thumb down 2

  2. Mister Bluster says:

    Kelly:…he called four people…and expressesd his condolences
    in the best way that he could.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. James Pearce says:

    You can watch the full video of the 2015 event at the Sun-Sentinel link above

    Nooooooooo.

    Kelly knows very well that we’re going to watch the video and go, “see, he lied!” and then go tripping down the stairs again. And he knows very well that Trump supporters are going to watch that video and go, “Yeah, she is kind of an empty barrel, isn’t she?”

    (In case anyone was wondering though, Rep Wilson doesn’t just have one ridiculous sequinned cowboy hat. She has a whole collection!)

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 27

  4. Raymond Smith says:

    Facts are something that the Trump Administration has to ignore to survive.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  5. Scott says:

    Kelly started his press conference correctly with a narrative description of the notification and return process. He should have stopped right there on the high ground. But no, he had to descend and attack Rep Wilson with name calling and false statements. And so, he put himself back in the line of fire. A tactical blunder. Makes you wonder about his capabilities.

    Of course, no one escapes being corrupted by the classless pig, who will always be a classless pig.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 0

  6. M. Bouffant says:

    What do you mean by “That may well be the case”?

    he should not be questioned merely because he is a former Marine Corps General. That may well be the case

    Does the First Amendment stop at the Pentagon’s door?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  7. Davebo says:

    He not only misspoke, misremembered, or whatever euphemism you choose he was also pretty much a prick with ears.

    The adulation of Kelly has always been misplaced IMO. Look as his words and actions while at DHS.

    And too many people assume he was making a dig at Trump concerning Gold Star families and the last convention. I think it’s just as or more likely he was making a dig at the Kahn family.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  8. Moosebreath says:

    Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would call this post “highly inappropriate”.

    “White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended White House chief of staff John Kelly Friday after he made erroneous claims about a Democratic congresswoman the day before.

    Sanders told reporters it was “highly inappropriate” to debate the chief of staff over his statement, given that he is a retired four-star Marine general.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  9. Mikey says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Sanders told reporters it was “highly inappropriate” to debate the chief of staff over his statement, given that he is a retired four-star Marine general.”

    They really want a totalitarian America, don’t they?

    I’m starting to think the ban on retired general officers in Cabinet positions should be extended from seven years to permanently.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  10. the Q says:

    It used to be sacred that President’s wouldn’t use Generals to lie on their behalf.

    It used to be sacred that candidates running for the highest office in the land behaved with dignity and respected their opponents.

    It used to be sacred that once someone is found out to have lied in public, their moral duty would be to confess and apologize.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 0

  11. Davebo says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Just a few hours after her boss basically called another retired 4 star Marine General a LOSER!

    Great press shop they’ve got there in the White House. Hope Hicks is only 28 but very grabable so it’s all good!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  12. MarkedMan says:

    The modern Republican Party, also known as the party of lies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. Robert in SF says:

    @M. Bouffant: I think the phrase, “that may be the case” applies the to the fact he is a former Marine Corps General, not that he shouldn’t be debated. See the next part of the sentence,

    That may well be the case, but he is now as much a politician as his boss and everyone else working in a political position in the White House, and his words are subject to the same amount of scrutiny as President Trump’s.

    Read more: http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/john-kelly-defends-trump-on-call-to-grieving-family-but-gets-many-facts-wrong/#ixzz4w79n0LEu

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Robert in SF says:

    @M. Bouffant: I think the phrase, “that may be the case” applies the to the fact he is a former Marine Corps General, not that he shouldn’t be debated. See the next part of the sentence,

    That may well be the case, but he is now as much a politician as his boss and everyone else working in a political position in the White House, and his words are subject to the same amount of scrutiny as President Trump’s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. xenos says:

    There is also the theory that Kelly is a bigot, and did not remember the speech correctly because his original listening was filtered through his own bigotry and toxic resentment of non-authoritarian authority.

    That theory corresponds with the darker side of Kelly’s story (Gitmo, DHS, willing association with confirmed white supremacists like 45).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2

  16. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    For me, Kelly’s statement had a kind of “at last, sir, have you no shame at all?” feel to it. I agree with what a friend of mine said yesterday, “at least we can be sure he’s a whore now.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  17. JohnMcC says:

    Several lefty outlets have remarked on the openly elitist attitude toward the “one percent” who’s vantage point as military professionals gives them the privilege of condescension towards the rest of us in the Great Unwashed. I didn’t catch too strong a scent of that in the original videos that I saw so mention it here because when it was pointed out to me it was disturbingly clear.

    My military experience is some 50 years ago but I have to say that the best description of the US Army as I knew it, is Beetle Bailey.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. Steve says:

    Lie down with dogs get up with fleas..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  19. Two thoughts:

    1) The President himself started the politicization of these calls before this incident came to light, so blaming Rep. Wilson for politics is disingenuous at best.

    2) As best as I can tell, Kelly is not refuting Wilson’s account.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  20. Mister Bluster says:

    Kelly:…he called four people…and expressesd his condolences
    in the best way that he could.

    I do not see Kelly refuting Representative Wilson’s account of the phone call here either.

    Lara Trump claims to have read a transcript of the call.
    The White House says no such transcript exists.

    ‘Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    In other words, there was nothing unusual in the fact that Wilson was present for the call, although perhaps one can question her decision to make the details of that call and the family’s reaction to it public.

    I have to say that given her long relationship with the family and her experience with these situations, I suspect she either asked if she could, or was asked to speak out on the family’s behalf.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. KM says:

    @Mister Bluster :

    Lara Trump claims to have read a transcript of the call.

    Yeah, about that – WHY would she be reading them? What possible point or purpose would giving her access have other then their stupid little propaganda show? Isn’t she supposed to be staying away from all things government since, you know, she’s not an official part of the Administration and her husband’s supposed to be keeping family business out of the White House and vice versa?

    These people aren’t smart enough to notice when they are contradicting each other, let alone when admitting to conflicts of interest or possible corruption. She either admitted all calls are taped – meaning there’s always evidence or transcripts to be subpoenaed – or that they lie about having evidence to support false talking points. Either way – way to be blonde, Lara. You weren’t born a Trump but you fit right in.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. MarkedMan says:

    The more I think about it, the more I suspect that Kelly didn’t deliberately lie about what Rep. Wilson said at the naming ceremony. Rather, it seems likely to me that Kelly, whatever his higher level of maturity, is just as racist and sexist as Trump and the rest of his administration (and for that matter, a significant percentage of Trump voters.). So when a strong featured, quite dark skinned black woman came out wearing her trademark cowboy hat, he sat in his seat already deciding that she was ‘one of the bad ones’, crass and uppity and pushy. He heard what he expected to hear, and not what she said.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  24. James Pearce says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The President himself started the politicization of these calls before this incident came to light

    Granted, but is that what this whole week’s arguments were about….who started it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. @James Pearce: My point was not who started it, my point was to provide broader context to Kelly’s defense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. There is a whole other conversation to be had about how Trump politicized this issue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Steve: And the simpler possibility that he lies down with dogs because he is one is always still available, too. Maybe that’s what keeps all of these “respectable” people coming to work for Trump–they ARE his base (in as many ways as one wants to take that).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @KM:

    These people aren’t smart enough to notice when they are contradicting each other, let alone when admitting to conflicts of interest or possible corruption.

    Yeah, but all this dog-and-pony show is not really for the general public anyway. It’s all to give the Bob the whatevers, JKBs, and other Internet trolls what they need to believe that they are winning.

    We already know that the administration is corrupt and that it’s members are either idiots or whores dedicated to their own private agendas. Now, we need to hope that this will obliterate the GOP and that what rises out of the ashes isn’t worse, but conservatism sure seems to look like a poisonous weed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  29. Scott O says:

    @James Pearce:

    (In case anyone was wondering though, Rep Wilson doesn’t just have one ridiculous sequinned cowboy hat. She has a whole collection!

    At least Trump only wears one ridiculous thing on his head. How much time do you think he spends each morning getting his hair to look like that? Bonus question, does he do it himself?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. An Interested Party says:

    @Scott O: Indeed…it is far less ridiculous to wear a variety of sequined cowboy hats than it is to look like you stick your head in a cotton candy machine on a daily basis…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0