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Kelly says he told Trump not to call heroes’ families

  • Congresswoman Frederica Wilson says she was on the phone when President Trump called Sgt. La David T. Johnson's widow
  • She has accused the president of making insensitive remarks on the call
  • Trump claimed, in response, that Barack Obama and other presidents 'didn't make calls' to Gold Star families
  •  When that was disproven, he pointed to John Kelly, a retired general who serves as his chief of staff, and claimed that Obama didn't call him
  • Kelly's son died in Afghanistan in 2010; he confirmed Thursday that Obama didn't call but said he was not offended
  • Also said he counseled Trump not to call the families of the fallen, even though it's nice when presidents do 

By Francesca Chambers, White House Correspondent and Nikki Schwab, U.s. Political Reporter For Dailymail.com

Published: 15:25 EDT, 19 October 2017 | Updated: 16:15 EDT, 19 October 2017

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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said Thursday that he was stunned to learn that Congresswoman Frederica Wilson listened in on the president's call to a fallen soldier's wife.

A retired general who lost his own son in Afghanistan in 2010, Kelly said the call to Sgt. La David T. Johnson's wife should have been 'sacred' and that Wilson should not have repeated President Trump's words to the Green Beret's widow.

'It stuns me that a Member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. I though at least that was sacred,' he said. 

In his remarks, Kelly called Wilson a 'selfish Member of Congress.' 

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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly says he was stunned to learn that Congresswoman Frederica Wilson listened in on the president's call to a fallen soldier's wife

The White House official found himself at the center of a charge that President Barack Obama 'didn't make calls' to the families of fallen soldiers this week after President Trump claimed that Obama didn't call Kelly when his son Robert died
The White House official found himself at the center of a charge that President Barack Obama 'didn't make calls' to the families of fallen soldiers this week after President Trump claimed that Obama didn't call Kelly when his son Robert died

Kelly said that President Trump's call to Sgt. La David T. Johnson's wife should have been 'sacred' and that Wilson (left) should not have repeated it

PICTURED: Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger
PICTURED: Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger

PICTURED: Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger

The White House official found himself at the center of a charge that President Barack Obama 'didn't make calls' to the families of fallen soldiers this week after President Trump claimed that Obama didn't call Kelly when his son Robert died.

Kelly said Thursday at a White House news conference that it's true - but he wasn't offended. 

'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 that I don't believe President Obama called. That's not a negative thing,' he said.

In fact, Kelly says he counseled Trump not to call Gold Star families.

'When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was he not do it,' he said. 'Because it's not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to. It's nice to do them in my opinion, in any event.' 

The controversy over the Gold Star families began when Trump told reporters during an impromptu news conference that most presidents 'didn't make calls' as he came under scrutiny for waiting so long to comment on four U.S. soldiers' deaths in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.

Trump said he'd written the families and would be making calls soon.  When he did, Wilson, a Democrat who represents Florida, claimed that Trump dismissively told Johnson's widow Myeshia that Johnson 'knew what he signed up for' by enlisting, adding that 'when it happens it hurts anyway.'

Myeshia Johnson, who is expecting the couple's third baby in January, later sobbed as she leaned over her husband's coffin
Myeshia Johnson, who is expecting the couple's third baby in January, later sobbed as she leaned over her husband's coffin

Myeshia Johnson, who is expecting the couple's third baby in January, later sobbed as she leaned over her husband's coffin

Kelly's appearance at the podium was a surprise one. The daily press briefing is typically handled by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman.

After brief, opening remarks on Thursday, Huckabee Sanders invited Kelly to the podium to give a play-by-play of what happens when a service member is killed in action and how grieving family members are informed.

'Most Americans don't know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines or coast guardsman in combat,' he said.

As he went through the process, the press briefing room fell silent.

'Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes for a shroud. Puts them on a helicopter as a routine. And sends them home,' Kelly said.

Kelly gave a play-by-play from the White House podium of what happens when a service member is killed in action and how grieving family members are informed
Kelly gave a play-by-play from the White House podium of what happens when a service member is killed in action and how grieving family members are informed

Kelly gave a play-by-play from the White House podium of what happens when a service member is killed in action and how grieving family members are informed

The retired general noted how the body was packed with ice, and then packed with ice again in a stopover in Europe, before the deceased lands at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where all American casualties are processed.

The White House chief of staff encouraged the reporters in the room to watch Taking Chance, a 2009 movie starring Kevin Bacon, that shows the painful process in full detail as the body of Chance Phelps comes home.

The movie was based on a real account. And Kelly said he lived through the action.

'Chance Phelps was killed under my command, right next to me,' the retired four-star general said.

Kelly went into gut-wrenching detail on how the families are informed.

If there are parents, an officer heads to their home. If a wife is left behind, hers, too. If the parents are divorced, then three officers are deployed.

'The casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member,' Kelly said. 

JOHN KELLY'S WHITE HOUSE SPEECH ON GOLD STAR FAMILIES

Most Americans don't know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or coast guardsman in combat. So let me tell you what happens. 

Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine, and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they're packed in ice, typically at the airhead and then they're flown to usually Europe – where they're then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base. Where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they've earned, the emblems of their service and then puts them on another airplane linked up with the casualty officer escort that takes them home. 

A very, very good movie to watch is 'Taking Chance' if you haven't seen it, where this is done in a movie, HBO setting. Chance Phelps was killed under my command, right next to me. It's worth seeing that if you have never seen it. So that's the process. 

While that's happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door. Typically the mom and dad will answer. Wife. If there is a wife, this is happening in two different places. If the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member. And stays with that family until, well, for a long, long time, even after the interment. So that's what happens. 

Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 per cent this country produces. Most of you as Americans don't know them. Many of you don't know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best that this country produces. An they 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. 

Who writes letters to the families? Typically the company commander – in my case as a Marine, the company commander – the battalion commander, regimental commander, division commander, secretary of defense, typically the service chief, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and the president, typically writes a letter. 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. Those are the only phone calls that really matter. And yeah, the letters count to 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. If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There's no perfect way to make that phone call. 

When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was, he not do it. Because it's not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to. It's a "nice to do" in my opinion in any event. 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. 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. 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. But then he said, you know, "How do you make these calls?" If you're not in the family, if you've never worn the uniform, if you've never been in combat, you can't even imagine how to make that phone call. 

But he very bravely does make those calls. The call in question that he made yesterday, a day before yesterday now, were to four family members. The four fallen. And remember, there's a next of kin, designated by the individual. If he's married, that's typically the spouse. If he's not married, that's typically the parents, unless the parents are divorced and then he selects one of them. If he didn't get along with his parents, he'll select a sibling. 

But the point is the phone call is made to the next of kin only if the next of kin agrees to take the phone call. Sometimes they don't. So a pre-call is made: 'The President of the United States or the commandant of the Marine Corps, or someone would like to call. Will you accept the call?' And typically they accept the call. So he called four people yesterday and expressed his condolences the best way he could.

 

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