John Kelly ‘Collateral Damage’ in Latest Trump Spat

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

President Donald Trump has turned his own obviously failed condolence phone call last Tuesday to 24-year-old, Myeshia Johnson, widow of 25-year-old, Army Sgt. La David Johnson, into a political fight between himself and Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-FL).

The feisty, African-American congresswoman, who is a friend of the Johnson family and was a mentor to the fallen soldier, can hold her own with Trump in their verbal and Twitter exchanges that continue to this day.

However, in what’s clearly become another example of Trump’s abasement of the office of the president, the reputation of Marine Corps general and now White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has become the collateral damage of this unfortunate affair.

Last Thursday, Kelly appeared at the White House press briefing to describe his version of what happened. He clearly had mixed emotions about being there.

Up to that point, Kelly had avoided discussing publicly the November 9, 2010 death in Afghanistan of his son, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly. But Trump had dragged him into the controversy two days earlier by saying during a Fox News interview, “You could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from [then President Barack] Obama? I don’t know what Obama’s policy was.”

At the time he said that on Fox, Trump already knew Obama had not called then-Lt. Gen. Kelly, because his chief of staff had already told him during one of their first conversations after he took the White House job, something Kelly would later say at the press briefing.

Kelly began that appearance saying, “Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of [our] soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat.” He followed that with a clear and detailed explanation of what happens to those killed as they travel from the battlefield to burial and thereafter. He went over how the services have casualty officers who bring word to next-of-kin and family, as well as who in the chain of command write letters to next-of-kin, and who makes phone calls.

Recalling his own emotions, Kelly said, “Typically, the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies. In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really mattered. And yeah, the letters count, to a degree, but there’s not much that really can take the edge off what a family member is going through.”

Referring to his earlier conversation with Trump about presidential condolence phone calls, Kelly said, “My first recommendation was he not do it because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to. It’s nice to do, in my opinion, in any event.”

Kelly then related how a week ago, after the press conference where the question was raised about the four soldiers killed October 4 in Niger, Trump asked him how you make those phone calls “if you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’ve never been in combat.”

Asked by Trump, “What do I say?” Kelly told the reporters what his Marine colleague Gen. Joseph Dunford, his best friend as well as his casualty officer at the time of his son’s death, told him: “He [Kelly’s son] was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died—in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan – when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.”

That was a message between two senior military officers who were close friends, both from military families, where both had been in combat and were familiar with the perils of warfare. It was not a message easily passed on from someone who had never been in service to a young widow.

Nonetheless, that was the message Trump told Myeshia Johnson in a phone call last Tuesday while the widow was in a car on her way to Miami’s International Airport to receive the casket containing her husband’s remains. Rep. Wilson also was in the car and overhead the Trump call on speakerphone. Shortly thereafter she criticized those remarks, and Trump almost immediately responded via Twitter and verbal attacks on the Congresswoman, which I discuss below.

If Kelly had stopped his talk Thursday at the press briefing with his version of what had happened, that would have been enough. But for some reason he went on to attack Rep. Wilson and questioned her character as a self promoter, or as Kelly put it, “in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise.” However, to try to prove his point, Kelly used information from an event both attended on April 15, 2015.

It was the dedication of a new FBI building in Miami, which was to be named to honor two special agents who had been killed in a gun battle, Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove. Wilson opened her nine-minute speech describing her role getting Congress to pass the bill that approved the name but in that process, praised other House and Senate members as well as President Obama.

However, the majority of her speech was about the two, heroic FBI members and the Bureau itself. She even got FBI members in the audience to stand up for applause and ended by having the audience repeat the Bureau motto, “Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity.”

For some reason, Kelly told a different story about the event.

For one thing he got the name of Agent Dove wrong. He called him Duke.

Then, as everyone has already publicized, he claimed, “She talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money – the $20 million – to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned, stunned that she had done it.”

All that is total fiction. As Wilson herself has pointed out, she was not even in Congress when funds for the building were approved. And as the video of her speech showed, Wilson spent most of her talk on the two special agents and the FBI.

Why did Kelly not check his memory of the event before speaking apparently off-the-top-of-his-head when publicly attacking a Congress member’s integrity?

He even threw the press a Trumpian self-righteous note, “You know, none of us went to the press and criticized [Wilson]. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, okay, fine.”

Kelly’s performance should serve as a warning to present and former senior military officers about the dangers of taking political jobs in the Trump administration – in this case the White House – and having to defend their boss’s unexpected public outbursts.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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