WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump consoled the families of four fallen Green Berets “the best way that he could” amid an anguish and loss that few people know, White House chief of staff John Kelly said Thursday in remarks steeped in emotion and informed by personal tragedy.
“Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,” Kelly said he told Trump when the president sought guidance on condolence calls he placed to kin of the four soldiers killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.
The chief of staff, speaking from experience as a Gold Star father and retired Marines general, made an unscheduled appearance before reporters two days after his son’s 2010 combat death was invoked by Trump as criticism of former President Barack Obama’s outreach to military families.
Kelly condemned Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) for listening in on and publicly recounting the conversation Trump had Tuesday with the widow of slain Army Sgt. La David Johnson.
The ultimate sacrifice of a soldier should be a sacred topic, Kelly said. “I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” he said. Trump had “in his way tried to express the opinion that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero,” Kelly said of Johnson.
The chief of staff said he took a walk among the graves of fallen troops at Arlington National Cemetery to reflect.
Wilson, who was riding in the car with Myeshia Johnson when Trump called Tuesday, had characterized the president as insensitive and quoted him telling the pregnant widow: “He knew what he signed up for . . . but when it happens, it hurts anyway.” The soldier’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, backed up the account and said Trump was disrespectful.
Wilson stood by her interpretation of the exchange.
“John Kelly’s trying to keep his job,” she told Politico on Thursday. “He will say anything. There were other people who heard what I heard.”
Kelly’s son, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, died in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan.
Though John Kelly has rarely discussed it publicly, he referenced his son’s death and those of armed forces colleagues as he described the solemn process of retrieval, repatriation, condolences and mourning that follows a combat loss.
Kelly said he had advised Trump not to call the families of the troops killed in Niger and instead reach out in other manners. But when the president “very bravely” chose to call, Kelly said he quoted to Trump the words of a superior.
Kelly recounted. “And when he died . . . he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.”
The message was “what the president tried to say to four families the other day,” the chief of staff said.
Asked Monday why he had yet to publicly addressed the Niger attack, Trump claimed his predecessors hadn’t called Gold Star families. On Tuesday, he told Fox News Radio that Obama didn’t call Kelly when his son was slain.
Kelly confirmed he had told Trump that Obama didn’t place a condolence call to him.
“That was not a criticism,” Kelly said. “That was just to simply say, I don’t believe President Obama called.”
Also Thursday, Trump posted a tweet that suggested he believed Moscow, the FBI and the Democrats could have worked together to obtain information intended to hurt his reputation.
“Workers of firm involved with the discredited and Fake Dossier take the 5th. Who paid for it, Russia, the FBI or the Dems (or all)?” he posted.
The president also hosted the governor of Puerto Rico, still struggling to recovery from Hurricane Maria. Trump gave his administration a “10” for its relief efforts when asked to grade them. Ricardo Rosselló did not answer the question. Federal aid to the island has been criticized as too sluggish.