On Wednesday, Representative Frederica Wilson said that in a call to the family of Sergeant La David Johnson, who died in Niger earlier this month, Trump had told Johnson’s widow, “He knew what he was getting into when he signed up.” Trump denied ever saying that, but as I wrote on Wednesday, it seemed possible that Trump had simply been speaking about soldiers’ sense of duty. And that’s what Kelly, contradicting Trump’s denial, said. Kelly said the president had asked him what to tell the family.
I said to him, “Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. 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. And when he died’—in the four cases we’re talking about Niger and my son’s case in Afghanistan—‘when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.’ That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day.”
Kelly then laced into Wilson. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me,” he said. “When I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them. Because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery. Went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”
He then continued to attack Wilson on other matters, but the core of his critique was that she had improperly politicized the matter. (Wilson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
It’s hard to hear or read Kelly’s words about his son’s death and not be moved, especially given his reticence in the past; his decision to open up now seems telling, even if it’s not immediately clear what it tells. Likewise, his defense of the president’s call as well-intentioned is plausible, and his comments about the insulation of military grief from most of society are important. But the charge of politicization is less credible, not because of anything Kelly said, but because of who he works for.
After all, it’s Trump who, when asked about the deaths in Niger during a press conference on Monday, opted to personalize the question and treat it as a challenge to his reputation for offering condolences. It is also Trump who, in that answer, unfairly and inaccurately accused previous presidents of not offering condolences. (Kelly confirmed that he had told Trump that Obama did not call him after his son’s death, though he added, “That was not a criticism.” Contra Trump’s jab, he suggested it was reasonable for presidents not to call every family, especially during periods when there are many casualties.) And it was Trump who, as further reporting has revealed, was not telling the truth about having called all or nearly all of the families of servicemembers who died during his presidency.