The generals with whom President Donald Trump has surrounded himself have seen combat and are known for public personas one part stoic and two parts tough. But on Thursday, Trump’s generals had a very emotive day.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the retired Marine Corps four-star general who once commanded troops in Iraq, appeared in the White House briefing room and delivered a passionate rebuke of Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., who this week slammed Trump for his alleged remarks to the widow of a fallen U.S. soldier.
Trump called the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson on Tuesday, shortly before his body was returned to the United States during a ceremony at Miami International Airport. Wilson told several media outlets she was traveling with his widow, Myeshia Johnson, who took the call on her car’s sound system, allowing all passengers to overhear it.
Wilson said the commander in chief told Johnson that her husband “knew what he signed up for … but when it happens it hurts anyway,” according to multiple reports.
Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that Wilson had “totally fabricated” his words to Johnson, and later added this when reporters asked him about the flap: “I didn't say what that congresswoman said, didn’t say it at all, she knows it.” He said he would like Wilson to clarify her statement.
Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
But it was his top aides who began clarifying his statements, electronic and verbal.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked on Wednesday whether she denies Trump said the words Wilson — and the Johnson family — alleges.
She responded: “The president’s call as accounted by multiple people in the room … was completely respectful, very sympathetic, and expressed the condolences of himself and the rest of the country, and thanked the family for their service, commended them for having an American hero in their family.”
Asked again, she refused to “get into the back-and-forth,” adding this: “And I think it, frankly, is a disgrace of the media to try to portray an act of kindness like that and that gesture, and to try to make it into something that it isn't.”
With the same question unresolved, senior White House aides opted to deploy Kelly on Thursday on a two-part mission: Remind the White House press corps of their lack of military service; and tell his emotional story about his son, who was killed in combat in 2010.
Kelly grew emotional, his voice cracking and his eyes turning a light shade of red, as he told the story of his “best friend,” now-Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, making the official call to notify him that Second Lt. Robert Kelly had been killed by a landmine in Afghanistan.
“Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,” Kelly said, recalling the conversation with his fellow Leatherneck. “He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we were at war.”
Kelly is a large man with an often-serious expression. He speaks with a general’s confidence and command presence. In short, he has the stern look and gritty baritone of a Marine’s Marine. So it was striking for him to admit Wilson’s charges left him unable to work on Wednesday.
“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday — and brokenhearted — when I saw what a member of Congress was doing,” he said of her claims. “The only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go walk among the finest men or women on this earth.”
He said he spent over 90 minutes at Arlington National Cemetery, a trip that saw him visit the graves of Marines that died under his command.
Kelly told reporters he had told Trump the story of Dunford’s somber-but-tough call about his fallen son while advising the president on making calls to fallen military members’ families — which Trump on Monday said are the “toughest” part of his job. (He also claims to have advised his boss against even making those calls because, in the Marine’s mind, the only phone calls that matter to family members come from a fallen troopers battle buddies.)
The thinly veiled implication was perhaps that’s what put the words in Trump’s head.
And the White House staff’s messaging, for the second consecutive day from senior White House aides was to criticize Wilson and the media for politicizing the matter and failing to understand the military’s culture. They did not, though, dispute Wilson’s version of the conversation, which has been corroborated by the family.
Kelly’s emotional minutes at the briefing room podium was a departure from the then-Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who once said this of his answer to a reporter’s question about his task force’s ability to handle Saddam Hussein’s military: “Hell, these are Marines. Men like them held Guadalcanal and took Iwo Jima, Baghdad ain't sh*t.”
But Kelly wasn’t alone in his rare public show of emotion.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, also a retired Marine Corps four-star general, got animated with reporters on Thursday when discussing the Niger ambush that left Johnson dead. His body was not recovered until two days after the ambush itself.
“One point I would make having seen some of the news reports, the U.S. military does not leave its troops behind,” Mattis said. “And I would just ask you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once.”
He said the Pentagon will only release information about the Niger incident once an internal investigation is complete.
And then there was Trump’s other general, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, who had his own emotive moment near the end of an appearance at a conference in Washington.
He was asked about Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain griping this week that it is harder for lawmakers to get information from the Trump administration than it was the Obama administration. (And McCain loathed the latter.)
“It hurt my feelings,” McMaster said, his voice trailing up an octave or two.
“If Sen. McCain says we need to do a better job communicating with him ... we’re going to do it,” McMaster said at a conference in Washington. “This is a problem that we can solve.”
All in all, an emotional day.