Family speaks out as Kelly defends President on condolence calls

John Kelly (CNN Wire file)

WASHINGTON — The debate is intensifying over comments President Donald Trump made to the widow of one of the four soldiers killed in Niger a few weeks ago.

The President reportedly told the widow that “you know that this could happen when you signed up for it…but it still hurts,” and referred to her husband as “your guy.”

The latest to comment on the President’s call to Army Sergeant La David Johnson’s widow, was Johnson’s half-sister, Angie Ghent.

“I found it very disrespectful of our President. We look up to who is supposed to be a role model for generations to come to actually say that.”

The soldier’s aunt, Cowanda Jones-Johnson confirmed the account was accurate, the Chicago Tribune reported.

“Yes the statement is true,” she said. “I was in the car and I heard the full conversation.”

Chief of Staff John Kelly, whose son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, made an unscheduled stop at the White House press briefing to defend the President. He started by describing the reverent handling of America’s war dead, bodies packed in ice and shipped home in the dark to an Air Force base in Delaware.

From that opening, Kelly delivered a raw and searing monologue Thursday about the reality and pain of war sacrifice, praising those who serve and summoning the 2010 death of his own son to defend President Trump against accusations of insensitive outreach to a grieving military family.

Kelly called Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida an “empty barrel” who “makes noise,” but he did not deny the lawmaker’s account of the phone call, as the president had this week. Throughout his remarks, Kelly lamented what he said was lost respect for military service, women, authority and more.

“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” Kelly said. “Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.”

“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,” Kelly said. “I think he very bravely does make those calls.”

Kelly confirmed Thursday that Obama had not called him, but he made clear “that was not a criticism.”

“That’s not a negative thing,” he said. “I don’t believe all presidents call. I believe they all write.”

In fact, the chief of staff said that when Trump took office, he advised him against making those calls: “I said to him, ‘Sir there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.’”

But Trump wanted to make the calls, and asked Kelly for advice on what to say. In response, Kelly told him what General Joseph Dunford, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him when Robert Kelly was killed. Kelly recalled that Dunford told him his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war.”

And Kelly added that Dunford told him that “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.”

Asked about that in Florida, the Congresswoman told a reporter, “John Kelly’s trying to keep his job. He will say anything.”

President Trump’s latest response was via tweet. Overnight he wrote, “The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”

Another Gold Star widow shared her experience with the President with CNN on Thursday.

Natasha De Alencar, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, was killed in combat back in April, said President Trump appeared to understand the magnitude of her loss.

“Natasha,” the President began. “I’m so sorry to hear about the whole situation. What a horrible thing … he’s an unbelievable hero and you know all the people that served with him are saying how incredible he was … .”

De Alencar said President Trump had researched her husband and was familiar with the awards he had received.

“It became nothing about politics but a person who understood, and that is what he gave to us,” De Alencar said.

Before the end of the conversation, he talked about her children, especially her oldest son who plays college football, and gave her a message for all of them.

“Tell them their father was a great hero that I respected,” President Trump said.

The President told De Alencar to take care of herself and extended an invitation to visit the White House.

De Alencar declined to comment directly on the controversy surrounding the President following the deaths of four US soldiers in Niger this month.

“I know they are hurting and they don’t know what the future holds because I know what they are going through,” she said. “That is the only thing I can comment on from my heart because that is what I know is true.”