Breaking years of silence over the death of his own son in Afghanistan, Kelly said he was “broken-hearted” by the politicization of troops who died on the battlefield.
“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation, absolutely stuns me,” said Kelly, while adding he was so incensed by the episode that he “walked among the stones” at Arlington national cemetery for an hour and a half on Wednesday.
“I thought at least that was sacred … but it [was] eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.”
Kelly, however, he failed to acknowledge that this week’s furor began when Trump launched an unprompted attack on his predecessors Barack Obama and George W Bush over their outreach to bereaved military families.
Kelly went on to offer a protracted justification for what he said was Trump’s attempt to offer his condolences to Johnson’s wife, Myeshia. Kelly said there was “no perfect way to make that phone call”.
Also on Thursday, in a sign of a possible fight ahead over the ambush in Niger, which left four US soldiers dead, Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate armed services committee, said he might consider issuing a subpoena because the White House had not been forthcoming with details of what happened.
“It may require a subpoena,” McCain said when asked what steps his committee might need to take to determine what happened to the four troops.
Questioned about what information the committee still needed, he said: “Everything.”
Asked whether the White House had been forthcoming with the information the committee needed, he added: “Of course not.”
Kelly, recounting the day when he was informed of his son’s death, recalled his close friend Gen Joseph Dunford arriving at his doorstep. Dunford had told him his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed”, Kelly recalled.
“He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1% [who serve in uniform],” Kelly said, seeking to convey the nuance lacking in Trump’s own reaction to the controversy. “He knew what the possibilities were, because we’re at war.”
Kelly added: “That’s what the president tried to say to the four families the other day.”
Describing Trump as “brave” for making the calls, Kelly said the president had sought his counsel on how to handle them. Kelly said he told the president that those who were not family, had never worn the uniform, and who did not serve, “can’t even imagine how to make that call”.
Wilson was not alone in her interpretation of the call. Johnson’s mother also took issue with Trump’s tone, telling reporters on Wednesday: “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”
Trump claimed this week that former presidents did not contact the families of fallen troops. In particular, Trump said Obama did not call Kelly after his son Robert was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
Trump’s remark prompted former Obama administration officials to reveal that six months after his son’s death, Kelly and his wife had been invited to a White House breakfast for bereaved Gold Star military families and sat at Michelle Obama’s table.
Kelly confirmed on Wednesday that he had not received a call from Obama, but clarified that presidents did not always reach out by phone to grieving families and often chose instead to write letters.
“That was not a criticism,” Kelly said of Obama. “That’s not a negative thing.”
A visibly emotional Kelly focused his initial comments on what happens when a service member dies, explaining in heart-wrenching detail the process of bringing the body home and notifying the next of kin.
“I appeal to America – let’s try to keep that sacred,” he said.
However, he became increasingly angry as he deplored the politicization of military deaths.
Although speaking from personal experience, Kelly was undeniably operating simultaneously as the White House chief of staff – cleaning up a political mess created by his boss.
He proceeded to take questions only from reporters who personally knew Gold Star families, telling the room an investigation into the attack in Niger was under way.
“The fact is they need to find out what happened and why it happened,” Kelly said, before reverting back to his role as a retired four-star marine general by concluding his remarks with a plea to members of the media.
“Understand there’s tens of thousands of America’s kids, mostly, doing the nation’s bidding,” Kelly said, observing that unlike in his day, when there was a draft, those serving today were doing so by choice.
“They don’t have to be in uniform. These young people today, they don’t do it for any other reason than their sense of selfless devotion.”
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