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"I was stunned … and broken-hearted": Ret. Gen. John Kelly attacks witness to Trump’s disrespect for troops

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Tuesday night, a Democratic Congress member who overheard the conversation reported that President Donald Trump told the widow of US Army Sgt. La David Johnson, a Green Beret killed during a mission in Niger on October 4, "He knew what he signed up for ... but when it happens, it hurts anyway.”

The account was confirmed by Johnson’s mother, also present during the phone call. But the Trump administration vociferously denied the story, first through Trump’s Twitter account and then at a briefing by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

And in their most dramatic attempt to discredit the story yet, on Thursday Sanders relinquished the podium to White House Chief of Staff and retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, who lost his son in Afghanistan in 2010, who said the problem was with the member of Congress, not the president.

Kelly did not deny Rep. Frederica Wilson’s (D-FL) story. But he claimed outrage that she would listen in on the phone call, and brought up an unrelated incident two years ago when he claimed she engaged in political grandstanding at the dedication of a new FBI field office in Miami.

“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted, at what I saw a member of Congress doing, a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife,” Kelly said. “In his way [Trump] tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted, there's no reason to enlist, he enlisted and was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. That was the message.”

It wasn’t the first time that the administration has cited Kelly’s late son in this debate — President Trump claimed that then-President Obama never called Kelly, to defend himself for being late in calling the families of four soldiers killed in Niger — but it’s the most notable to date.

A lightly edited transcript of Kelly’s remarks follows.

KELLY: Thanks a lot. It is a more serious note. So I just wanted to perhaps make more of a statement than an — give more of an explanation of what amounts to be a traditional press interaction. Most Americans don't know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, and Marines or Coast Guardsmen in combat. Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud. Puts them on a helicopter and sends them home. Their first stop is when they are packed in ice, typically at the air head and 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 they earned and puts them on another airplane to take them home.

A very, very good movie is Taking Chance. Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me. It's worth seeing that if you've never seen it. 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, the wife. And 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 this family until — well, for a long, long time. That's what happens.

Who are these young men and women, they are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most Americans don't know them. Many don't know any who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces and volunteer to protect our country when there's nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that self-service to the nation is not only appropriate but required. That's all right. Who writes letters to the families? Typically the company commander. In my case the commander, division commander, secretary of defense, typically the service chief and the president. Typically writes the letter. Typically the only phone calls the family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies. In my case, 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 for what the family members are going through. 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 nice to do, in my opinion, in any event.

He asked me about previous presidents, and I said I could 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 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 call, but I think 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 he selects one of them. If he didn't get along with his parents, he'll select a sibling. But 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 precall is made. The president of the United States, will you accept the call, and typically they all accept the call. So he called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way he could.

And he said to me, what do I say? 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 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, and the four cases we're talking about Niger and my son's cases 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.

I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing, a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife. And in his way tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted, there's no reason to enlist, he enlisted and was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted. 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've seen from recent cases. 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. I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die in the battlefield, I thought that might be sacred.

And 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. I'll end with this.

In April of 2015, while still on active duty, I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men who were killed in a firefight in Miami against drug traffickers in 1986. A guy by the name of Grogan and Duke. Grogan almost retired, 53 years old. Duke, I think less than a year on the job. They got in a gunfight and killed. Three FBI agents were there, wounded, now retired. We go down and give a brilliant memorial speech to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well and law enforcement so well. There were family members there. Some of the children were only 3, 4 years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade.

Three of the men that survived the fight were there and gave rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives. And a congresswoman stood up and, in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building. How she took care of her constituents because she got the money and just called up President Obama and on that phone call he gave the money, the $20 million to build a building, and she sat down. And we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said okay, fine.

So I still hope as you write your stories and I appeal to America that let's not let this maybe last thing that's held sacred in our society, a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country, let's try to somehow keep that sacred. But Rowe did a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior by a member of Congress. I'm willing to take a question or two on this topic. Let me ask you this. Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling? Okay. You get the question.

PRESS: Thank you, Gen. Kelly. You have great deal respect for everything you have ever done. If we could take this a bit further, why were they in Niger? We were told they weren't in armored vehicles and no air cover. So what are the specifics about this particular incident, and why were we there and why are we there?

KELLY: I would start by saying there is an investigation. Let me back up and say the fact of the matter is young men and women that wear our uniform are deployed around the world, and there are tens of thousands. Near the DMZ and North Korea. And Okinawa and South Korea. All over the United States training ready to go. They're all over Latin America. They do mostly drug interdiction, working with our great partners. You know, there's thousands. My own son back in the fight for his fifth tour in the fight against ISIS. Thousands in Europe. Acting as a deterrent and Africa. And they're doing the nation's work there.

Not making a lot of money, by the way, doing it. They love what they do. Why were they there? They're there working with partners all across Africa in this case, Niger, working with partners, teaching them how to be better soldiers, how to respect human rights, teaching them how to fight ISIS so that we don't have to send our soldiers and Marines there in the thousands. That's what they were doing there. There is an investigation. Always an investigation. Unless it's a very, very conventional death in a conventional law, there's always an investigation.

Of course, that operation is conducted by AFRICOM, that works for the secretary of defense. I talked to Jim Mattis this morning. Investigation doesn't mean anything was wrong. An investigation doesn't mean people's heads are going to roll. The fact is they need to find out what happened and why it happened. But at the end of the day, ladies and gentlemen, you have to understand that these young people, sometimes old guys, put on the uniform, go to where we send them to protect our country.

Sometimes they go in large numbers to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes they're working in small units working with our partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, helping them be better. But at the end of the day, they're helping those partners be better at fighting ISIS and North Africa to protect our country so that we don't have to send large numbers of troops. Any other — someone who knows a Gold Star fallen person. John.

PRESS: General, thank you for being here today, and thank you for your service. There has been some talk about the timetable of the release of a statement about — the death point was three soldiers killed in Niger. Can you walk us through the release of that information and what part did the fact that a beacon was pinging during that time have to do with the release of the statement and a concern that divulging information early might jeopardize?

KELLY: We're at the height of the US government; the people that will answer those questions will be the people at the other end of the military pyramid. I'm sure the special forces group is conducting and I know they're conducting an investigation. That investigation of course under the auspices of AFRICOM and ultimately will go to the Pentagon. I know a lot more than I'm letting on, but I'm not going to tell you.

There is an investigation being done, but as I said, the men and women of our country that are serving all around the world, I mean, what the hell is my son doing back in the fight? He's back in the fight because working with Iraqi soldiers who are better than they were a few years ago to take on ISIS directly so we don't have to do it. Small numbers of Marines where he is. Working alongside those guys. That's why they're out there. Whether it's Niger, Iraq. We don't want to send tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines to go fight. I'll take one more but from someone who knows — all right.

PRESS: General, when you talk about Niger, what does your intelligence tell you about the Russian connection with them and the stories coming out now supporting that?

KELLY: The Russian connection, I did not know that. The question’s for — or AFRICOM or DOD. Thanks very much.

As I walk off the stage, understand there's tens of thousands of American kids, mostly, doing the nation's work all around the world. They don't have to be in uniform. When I was a kid, every man in my life was a veteran, World War II, Korea, and there was the draft. These young people today, they don't do it for any other reason than their sense of selfless devotion to this great nation. We don't look down upon those who haven't served. In a way we're a bit sorry because you'll never experience the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our service men and women do. Not for any other reason than they love this country. I do appreciate your time.

Correction: This story originally identified Gen. Kelly as an Army general; he served in the Marine Corps. I regret the error and personally apologize to my Marine Corps veteran granddad.