The toughest call
John Kelly — White House chief of staff, former Marine general, Gold Star dad — has been on both sides of the dreaded conversation. He stood at the podium of the briefing room Thursday to speak up for Donald Trump and decry the uproar over Trump’s call to a fallen soldier’s widow.
He had recommended the president not make such calls “because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to,” Kelly said. But Trump “very bravely does make those calls.”
Kelly said he was “brokenhearted” at the “selfish behavior” of Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who had listened in on the “sacred” conversation between Trump and the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson.
Wilson — who said Trump made “insensitive” comments to Myeshia Johnson — was in the car when the call came in because she was a longtime friend of the soldier and his family.
It wasn’t clear whether Kelly was aware of that, nor did he address the account of the soldier’s mother that backed up Wilson’s version. But Kelly spoke an undeniable truth: “There’s no perfect way to make that phone call.” See Emily Ngo’s story for Newsday.
Not the same story
Though Kelly stood up for Trump’s intentions, he seemed to contradict him on one disputed point.
When Wilson described Trump telling the widow that her husband knew what he signed up for, Trump on Twitter said the congresswoman “totally fabricated what I said.”
But Kelly said that when he prepped Trump for the call to the families of the four soldiers killed in Niger, he described what he heard from Gen. Joseph Dunford — now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — when Second Lt. Robert Kelly died in Afghanistan in 2010.
“He said ‘Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into.”
Added Kelly: “That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day.” It’s just not how Trump tried to explain it.
Some of Kelly’s comments could be seen as double-edged — subtly reproachful of Trump as well as his critics. Kelly spoke of things that were “sacred” when he was growing up — including women and Gold Star families — but no more.
“Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer,” he said.
That could have been a shot at Hillary Clinton for bringing Khizr and Gazala Khan to the Democratic convention in 2016 to denounce Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. It also could have been a rebuke to Trump’s subsequent harsh attacks on the Khans.
Kelly also recalled attending the dedication of an FBI field office in Miami where “Jim Comey gave an absolutely brilliant memorial speech” to fallen agents. Yep, that’s the same Comey Trump regularly vilifies on Twitter.
Hear a Trump call for yourself
Gold Star widow Natasha De Alencar recorded her call from Trump in April after her husband was killed in Afghanistan and shared it with The Washington Post.
“At that moment when my world was upside down, and me and my kids didn’t know which way we were going, it felt like I was talking to just another regular human,” said De Alencar, a mother of five. “It was a moment of niceness that we needed because we were going through hell.”
The take-away: Trump’s travels
Trump’s penchant for winging it may have some holding their breath when he embarks on his longest foreign trip as president — visits to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, China and Vietnam between Nov. 3 and 14.
Nuclear tensions with North Korea will be a top topic. An internal debate was reported inside Trump’s administration over whether he will visit the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas as past presidents have. Trump’s complaints about trade imbalances will also be high on the agenda.
See Dan Janison’s column for Newsday.
Perfecto in Puerto Rico
While meeting with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, Trump graded his administration’s handling of the response to Hurricane Maria.
“I’d say it was a 10,” Trump said.
When he visited the island earlier this month, he said it wasn’t a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — at least in terms of lives lost. But on Thursday, he said it was “worse than Katrina ... in many ways.”
When Rosselló was asked by Trump, “Did we do a great job?” the governor replied, “You responded immediately, sir.”
Not Bush’s America
Without mentioning Trump by name, former President George W. Bush slammed his impact on American politics and life in a speech Thursday.
“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism,” Bush said. “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush said in remarks at the Bush Institute’s Spirit of Liberty event in New York (video here).
Asked about the speech during his session with Rosselló, Trump said he hadn’t seen it.
Tehran into Trump
Earlier this week, Trump said Iran’s leaders “were respectful of what I did” even as they criticized his decertification of the nuclear deal. We’ll have to see if he still feels that way after the latest comments by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamanei told a group, “It would be a waste of time to respond to such blatherings and nonsensical remarks by the foul-mouthed US President.” He added: “The U.S. president pretends to be an idiot, but this should not cause us to let our guard down.”
What else is happening
- Despite Trump’s waffling, a bipartisan proposal to calm health insurance markets is gaining momentum. The latest from Trump, who has been for and against restoring Obamacare subsidies: “I don’t want the insurance companies making any more money ... than they have to.”
- UN Ambassador Nikki Haley on Thursday described Russian interference in U.S. elections as “warfare.” Trump still professes skepticism on whether it occurred.
- Trump daughter-in-law Lara Trump has become a pitchwoman for his 2020 campaign on its social media outlets, with her videos drawing views in the millions, The Associated Press reports.
- The Pentagon is still investigating how the ambush that killed four soldiers in Niger happened, according to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the administration has not been forthcoming enough.
- Trump personally interviewed at least two potential candidates for U.S. attorney positions in New York, which would potentially have jurisdiction over investigations of him and his businesses, Politico reported. Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Trump’s role “neither normal nor advisable.”