Kelly, 'stunned' over Gold Star family accusation, opens up about son's death

By Danielle Haynes  |  Oct. 19, 2017 at 6:16 PM
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Oct. 19 (UPI) -- White House chief of staff John Kelly on Thursday said he was "brokenhearted" when he learned a member of Congress criticized President Donald Trump for how he spoke to the widow of a slain U.S. soldier.

Kelly offered insight into the phone call Trump made to the family of La David Johnson during a briefing with White House reporters. He defended the president, though said he had advised him not to call the families of four soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month.

"I was stunned when I came to work yesterday, and brokenhearted, when I saw what a member of Congress was doing," Kelly said. "What she was saying, what she was doing on TV. The only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go walk among the finest men or women on this earth."

He was talking about Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., who was present with the Johnson family when Trump called to offer his condolences. The phone was on speaker, so she was able to listen in to the conversation, she said.

Wilson appeared on cable television news programs Wednesday, lambasting the president for the words he chose to use while speaking to Myeshia Johnson, La David Johnson's widow.

"I didn't hear the whole phone call but I did hear him say, 'I'm sure he knew what he was signing up for but it still hurts,'" Wilson told CNN.

She said Myeshia Johnson was crying when the phone call ended.

"She broke down and she said, 'he didn't even know his name,'" Wilson said.

Kelly said Trump had asked him for advice on what to say to the grieving families when he called them Wednesday since Kelly himself is a Gold Star father. His son, Second Lt. Robert Kelly, died in 2010 in Afghanistan.

Kelly said he recalled what Gen. Joseph Dunford told him when he learned of his son's death.

"He 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 were at war," Kelly told reporters. "And when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That's what the president tried to say to the four families the other day."

Kelly said he encouraged the president not to call the families because when his son died, the only phone calls that mattered to him where the ones of fellow soldiers who served with his son.

"If you're not in the family, if you've never worn the uniform, if you're not in combat, you can't even begin to imagine how to make that call," Kelly said.

He also criticized Wilson for politicizing La David Johnson's death.

"Let's not let this maybe last thing that is held sacred in our society, a young man, a young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country, let's try to somehow keep that sacred," Kelly said.

Kelly didn't talk about Trump comparing his outreach to Gold Star families to former President Barack Obama. During a press conference Monday, Trump said he made sure to call and write to the families of each fallen soldier, and said previous presidents were not always so diligent.

During a radio interview on Tuesday, Trump asked, "You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?"

Kelly said he didn't get a call from Obama, but that was "not a negative thing."

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