Here's what John Kelly is missing about Trump's Gold Star insult

Kelly told reporters on Thursday that Trump was merely parroting his own advice to him during a controversial call

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 20, 2017 8:14AM (EDT)

John Kelly (AP/Luis Soto)
John Kelly (AP/Luis Soto)

On Thursday, instead of apologizing for President Donald Trump's insults towards a Gold Star family, chief of staff John Kelly slammed a congresswoman, got a few facts wrong and undermined the White House's narrative.

Kelly claimed that he had told Trump previous presidents had not always called families and insisted that he had told Trump that he had not received a phone call from President Barack Obama after his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 (although he had received a letter and did not consider the lack of a call to be disrespectful), according to Politico. Most importantly, Kelly defended Trump's controversial phone call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson.

"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," Kelly told reporters.

After adding that Trump had "expressed his condolences in the best way that he could," Kelly pivoted to criticizing Rep. Frederica Wilson — who was close to the Johnson family and had been present when the call was placed — saying he was "stunned" and "broken-hearted" that she had listened in on the call and characterized it harshly.

Kelly's press conference also contradicted Trump's press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who backed up her boss's denial when speaking to reporters on Wednesday. In the process, she also admitted that Trump had not recorded the conversation, undermining his claim that he could prove his critics were lying about the call.

"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," Kelly said.

He added, "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."

As one of Obama's former speechwriters pointed out, however, Kelly did not dispute that Wilson's description of the call was correct, and Wilson had been invited to listen in on the call by Johnson's family.

Kelly also did not mention that Cowanda Jones-Johnson, the mother of the slain soldier, confirmed Wilson's account of the phone call and told The Washington Post that the president did "disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband."

Boston Globe columnist and former State Department speechwriter Michael Cohen also had a pair of insightful observations — namely, that Kelly never apologized to Myeshia Johnson, the Gold Star widow who Trump had offended, and that Kelly had shown little sympathy to Rep. Wilson even though she had also suffered a terrible personal loss due to Johnson's death.


By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Donald Trump John F. Kelly Niger Rep. Frederica Wilson