WASHINGTON — White House chief of staff John Kelly, sharing painful details of being notified of the death of his son killed in action in 2010, emerged in the briefing room this afternoon to slam a Florida congresswoman for sharing details of a phone call President Trump had with the widow of a fallen soldier.
Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Fla., was one of four U.S. soldiers killed when a counterterrorism patrol in Niger was ambushed on Oct. 4. He and his wife, Myeshia Johnson, met when they were just 6 years old. They have a 2-year-old son, a 6-year-old girl and a baby girl on the way.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), the family’s home-district congresswoman and a family friend, was in the limousine with Johnson’s relatives as they headed to the airport to receive the sergeant’s body Tuesday. Trump made a 5-minute call to Myeshia Johnson, which she put on speakerphone so all in the limo could hear.
“Basically he said, ‘well, I guess he knew what he signed up for. But I guess it still hurt.’ That’s what he said,” the congresswoman described. “…And when she actually hung up the phone she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even know his name.’ Now that’s the worst part.”
The White House initially said Tuesday night that conversations between the president and family members of the fallen are private conversations. On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted in response, “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”
Cowanda Jones-Johnson, the aunt who raised Sgt. Johnson after his mother died, told the Washington Post that Wilson’s recollection of the conversation was accurate. “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” she said.
At today’s White House briefing, Kelly noted that service members “volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required — but that’s all right.”
“Typically, the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they can 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,” he said. “Those are the only phone calls that really matter. And, yes, the letters count a degree, but there’s not much that really can take the edge off what a family member is going through. So, some presidents have elected to call. All presidents, I believe, have elected to send letters.”
Kelly said that after he took the chief of staff job he talked with Trump “about how to do it,” and “my first recommendation was he not do it, because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to.”
“He asked me about previous presidents, and I said I can tell you that President Obama, who was my commander in chief when I was on active duty, did not call my family. That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say, I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing,” he added; Kelly was hosted at the White House by Obama for a Gold Star families reception about six months after his son died. “I don’t believe President Bush called in all cases. I don’t believe any president, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high, that presidents call.”
“But I believe they all write. So, when I gave that explanation to our president three days ago, he elected to make phone calls in the case of the four young men who we lost in Niger at the earlier part of this month.”
Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash., Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga., were also killed Oct. 4 as three of a dozen U.S. soldiers accompanying a few dozen Nigerien soldiers on a routine patrol. On Oct. 6, the body of Johnson, who had been listed as missing after the attack, was recovered by Nigerien forces.
During a Monday press conference, Trump was pressed about why he hadn’t mentioned the Niger attack in public statements or on Twitter. The president said letters would go out to the families of the fallen soldiers that day and he would call the families “at some point.”
Kelly said Trump had asked him what to say to the families, and the general essentially confirmed the account from Wilson and Johnson’s mother. “I said to him, sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. But let me tell you what I tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me, because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, 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’re at war,” the chief of staff said. “…That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day.”
Kelly said he was “stunned” and “brokenhearted” to see Wilson’s comments about the call and the family’s reaction.
“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation, absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life was sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer,” he continued. “I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.”
Charging that “it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress,” the retired U.S. Southern Command general said he went down to Arlington National Cemetery to collect his thoughts for an hour and a half and “walked among the stones, some of whom I put there, because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”
When it came time for a few questions, Kelly would only call on reporters who said they personally know a Gold Star family.
The Defense Department is conducting a probe into the Niger attack. “An investigation doesn’t mean anything was wrong,” Kelly said. “An investigation doesn’t mean people’s heads are going to roll.”
Wilson criticized Trump for still not referring to La David or Myeshia Johnson by name when the president defended his call at a cabinet meeting, and told Politico that Kelly is “trying to keep his job.”
“The congresswoman will not be making any further comment on the issue because the focus should be on helping a grieving widow and family heal, not on her or Donald Trump,” Wilson’s office said in a statement.