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White House Chief of Staff Speaks Out on Trump Statements to Military Family; Kelly: "Stuns Me" Congresswoman Listened to Call. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We just all witnessed minutes ago a remarkable briefing from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the retired Marine general and Gold Star dad.

He weighed in on this week's political controversies, controversies that have regrettably taken the solemn and upsetting moments of when a family is informed that their family member, their fallen service member has been killed, and brought that moment, all of them, into the political realm.

It is hard to understate how unusual it was to hear from John Kelly himself on this subject. His son, Marine Lieutenant Robert Kelly, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010. It was a devastating loss for him and his wife, Karen.

Of a parent's loss of a child, Shakespeare once wrote -- quote -- "Grief feels the room up of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me" -- unquote.

And though it's clear to all who know John Kelly and Karen Kelly that a Robert is a constant presence in their lives, John Kelly has been reluctant to speak publicly about the very personal and distressing loss he suffered.

But given the political fights about President Trump's false charge that President Obama never called the families of the fallen, and then later in the week the charge by a Democratic congresswoman that Trump himself was insensitive when he called a grieving widow earlier this week, Kelly obviously felt he needed to explain his behind-the-scenes conversations with President Trump, lending advice to the president as someone who knew best how those families were feeling from both ends of that phone call, and those visits, starting with whether President Trump should even make a tradition of making these phone calls.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: 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.


TAPPER: Kelly also gave some clarity on whether President Obama called him and his wife after their son Robert was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan. It's a point that President Trump used to defend himself earlier this the week.


KELLY: He asked me about previous presidents, and I said I can 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.


TAPPER: Kelly shared with the president privately and then remarkably with the rest of us today that awful moment in 2010 when he was called by his friend General Dunford, who bore and then broke the horrible news about Robert.


KELLY: 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 -- and the four cases we're talking about Niger, in 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.


TAPPER: He knew what he was getting into. That's what General Dunford told General Kelly about Robert. And it was the message that President Trump tried to convey to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson on Tuesday. Johnson was killed in Niger.

But, of course, according to Johnson's mother and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who heard the call, that message, that attempt of consolation was obviously not received the way that President Trump intended it.

Kelly expressed shock today at how Congresswoman Wilson shared this information.


KELLY: I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted 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 he 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.


TAPPER: Joining me now is retired Major General James "Spider" Marks. He spent 30 years in the U.S. Army. We have with us former Pentagon spokesman retired Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, and also with us, CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray.

Sara's question to President Trump on Monday is what sparked all of this.

Admiral Kirby, let me start with you.

What did you make of John Kelly's comments and his -- how angry he was at the congresswoman?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I'm not surprised. I mean, you can tell that this was very emotional for him.

This wasn't just the chief of staff advising the president of the United States. It was a Gold Star dad, as you introduced, in terms of what his personal experiences were. A lot of that comes with him. I'm not surprised that he is -- that he's as bitter as he is about the way it came out.

But I do think -- and nobody can question his loyalty or service to the country or his bravery. Nothing I ever did in the Navy comes even close.

That said, he's a political figure now. And it wasn't Congresswoman Wilson who politicized this. It was President Trump who politicized this by making it into a competition with President Obama.

TAPPER: You mean initially, you're saying?

KIRBY: Yes, initially.

TAPPER: You don't think Congresswoman Wilson politicized this at all?

KIRBY: No, I do think she contributed to it.

TAPPER: But he got it started, is what you're saying.

KIRBY: But he's the one who started it. Yes, that's what I meant. So, you know, I hope that the other person listening to that press

conference this afternoon was the commander in chief, because some of those messages, I hope, hit home to him too.

TAPPER: Spider Marks, in addition to serving, your father-in-law was killed in Vietnam in July 1972. At the time, he wasn't your father- in-law. He was your dad's best friend, but obviously your wife is a Gold Star daughter.

You have also additionally lost men in combat. How does this whole controversy strike you?

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it's immensely personal on multiple levels, as John Kirby just laid out.

And absolutely correct. Jake, when you get up on the high road, there's precious little traffic. I think we should all get up on the high road. This thing has been politicized. It needs to stop. This is a great patriot who lost his life.

And as John Kelly described -- and he is cloaked in a former Cabinet position. He's cloaked in the uniform of a four-star. He's cloaked most importantly in this case in his uniform of a father.

And I think what we all need to do is just say, look, this is an incredibly unfortunate incident, and let's focus in on the operations in Niger and what can that unified command, Africa Command, the Department of Defense, and what they can do with Special Ops Command to figure out, what was the purpose of that operation? What were they doing there? Why were there so many resources that were shorted and not available to better assess the situation and to put those young men into a situation where they had a fighting chance?

But we didn't do that. It was -- in fact, I think the short story on this, as we're going to figure out, is that there was an intelligence failure in what took place.

But there truly is, Jake -- and I don't mean to walk away from that -- there truly is an incredible personal face on all of this.

TAPPER: Yes, and we will talk about Niger later in the show.

Sara, General Kelly was obviously addressing this today because this whole controversy began with comments President Trump made in the Rose Garden on Monday.

Does the White House really feel that President Trump is entirely blameless in this controversy, which is not to say that Congresswoman Wilson or individual members of the media or anyone else is above criticism?

But does the White House really think that when President Trump first said he makes phone calls, but President Obama didn't, that that didn't start the ball rolling on this whole unfortunate situation? SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well Jake, I can

tell you they have been extremely defensive about this. They're defensive about questions, like the one I asked the president on Monday. Just why haven't we heard from you on this?

This is the deadliest combat incident involving U.S. soldiers since this president has been in office. It's very uncharacteristic to not hear from the president on anything that's in the news, much less something as heartbreaking, as devastating as losing four American soldiers in a situation like this.

That's what sparked this. That's what sort of sparked the incident of political scoreboarding, the president suggesting that Obama and other presidents didn't make calls as frequently as he did, and eventually that's what got us to this controversy over the president's conversation with this widow.

But the White House has basically said that the president did what he needed to do, that his spokeswoman went out there, addressed the fact that there was a loss of U.S. life, that we lost American soldiers. The day after this happened, they shared the information they could at the time.

They said that they felt that was sufficient, that they felt it was necessary to do it from the podium in the Briefing Room, rather than through a written statement, that it would elevate it.


And they do believe that the president was essentially just trying to do his best to call these family members and to express his condolences.

And I think one of the things that was telling in what General Kelly was saying was that he advised the president not to make these calls, that he said there's nothing you're going to be able to do that lightens the burden on these families, and frankly he said in his situation when he lost his son, that the only thing that made him feel better was hearing from his son's buddies.

TAPPER: Right. They weren't actually upset, according to General Kelly, that they didn't hear from Obama. It wasn't particularly important.

I want to play one of the sound bites from General Kelly.

In the control room, it's SOT 6.

General Kelly talked a great deal about the disintegration of American traditions and how nothing seemed important or sacred anymore. Here's part of that.


KELLY: 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.



KIRBY: Yes, look, I was surprised when I heard Representative Wilson go out and describe the call publicly like that. That surprised me. That -- typically, it is a very private affair between a family and an official like that.

That said, apparently, she was in the car, and the family put the call on speaker. That's not the congresswoman's fault. The family obviously was comfortable having her in the presence, in their presence when they took that call and put it on speaker.

So, I think we need to be careful before we accuse Representative Wilson of sort of intruding and getting -- you know, listening -- having a listening device or something inappropriate there.

If I could just address a little bit of the sacred comments, and on this, again, with all do respect to General Kelly, who is a far better member of the military than I ever was, I don't agree that things aren't sacred anymore.

I mean, he talked about women. I think that women still struggled in the 1950s and '60s. I'm not saying things are perfect now, but it's not as if, you know, everything is so much worse now than it was before. Same with religion.

I mean, this country still believes and still professes freedom of religion, and I'm proud of that.

And on the Gold Star families, again, I'm not a Gold Star family member, but from what I have seen over the last couple of days, thanks in part to the media coverage and the exposure that these families have been given as a result of the president's actions, it's pretty clear to me that America wraps their arms, the military wraps their arms around Gold Star families. And we do treat them with a sense of a sacred nature and that we do take very seriously our responsibilities to them.

TAPPER: General Marks, you know General Kelly. I want you to take a listen to a part of his remarks today that were really I guess aimed at educating the public.

He talks a lot about -- and he's not wrong for doing so -- I think he's right, actually -- about the chasm between the 1 percent of the country that sacrifices and serves for this country in the military and the 99 percent of us that often take it for granted.

And he took the opportunity at the top of his remarks to educate people about how fallen soldiers, fallen heroes come home. Let's listen to that.


KELLY: Most Americans don't know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or Coast Guardsman in combat.

So, let me tell you what happens.

Their buddies, wrap them up in whatever passes of a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine, and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they are packed in ice, typically at the airhead, and then they are 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 that they have earned, the emblems of their service, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with the casualty officer escort that takes them home.

A very, very good movie to watch, if you haven't ever seen it, is "Taking Chance," where this is done in a movie, HBO setting.

Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me. And it's worth seeing that if you have never seen it. So 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, a wife.

And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places, if the parents divorced, three different places.

[16:15:00] And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until -- well, for a long, long time, even after the interment. So, that's what happens.


TAPPER: I mean, the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of the family member. This is spoken by somebody who has experienced those conversations on both sides, Spider.

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: And, Jake, you pray that it's done with a level of professionalism as described by John Kelly. And I would suggest to everyone that it is. These -- this is a sacred duty when you become a next of kin notification officer, a casualty assistance officer. You have to break this news on a very personal level.

My mother-in-law, when she received notification, it's something you can't ever redo. And so you pray that it's done with a level of dignity and respect and with graciousness and an immense amount of understanding. There's no empathy -- we can't talk about empathy because have you not been there, you just simply have never been there.

And so, it needs to be done and approached in a way as described by John Kelly. I can't belief he was able to describe that linear sequence of events as objectively as he did, but he sure put a point on what takes place for our military and our nation to honor their fallen. TAPPER: General Marks, Admiral Kirby, Sara Murray, stick around. We

have much more to talk about.

We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[16:21:02] TAPPER: We're back with the breaking news about the extraordinary press briefing from former marine general now White House chief of staff, John Kelly, who came out and talked to the press today about the process of how somebody's alerted by the commander-in- chief or others if they have a family member who is a service member who was killed, and explaining some of the behind the scenes of the controversy.

One of the interesting moments about this briefing was how much anger John Kelly had for Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, that's the Florida Democrat who is the one who shared her view and the family's view of the interpretation of President Trump's comments when he called Gold Star wife and said something along the lines of he knew what he was getting into. John Kelly shedding some light as to where that message came from. That's what he was told by General Dunford when General Dunford called him to tell him that his son Robert had been killed.

But Kelly wasn't only angry about what Wilson said to the press this week. He went back to the '80s and talked about Congresswoman Wilson's appearance at the dedication of an FBI building. It was dedicated to two agents who have been killed in a firefight and some of the family members of those killed were there.

Take a listen.


KELLY: And 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, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money and she just called up President Obama and on that phone call, he gave the money, the $20 million to build the building and she sat down.

And we were stunned. Stunned that she'd done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, OK, fine.

So, I still hope, as you write your stories, and I appeal to America that let's not let this maybe lost 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, keep that sacred. But it eroded great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: CNN's Sara Murray at the White House joins me.

Sara, it's kind of odd to listen to that because John Kelly is deriding politics and the sullying of a -- grief really. The sullying of grief, in this whole controversy this week, but he is just laying rhetorical body blows and insulting personally Congresswoman Wilson.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And you understand, you know, why this is a difficult position for John Kelly to be in. He said he didn't want the president to make these calls. That was his first initial piece of advice to the president, and then he gave him sort of the best counsel he could on how to navigate these conversations in the worst moment of someone's life.

And, you know, we now know that, not only from the congresswoman, but also from Sergeant La David Johnson's mother that this conversation didn't seem to go all of that well. They were -- the family members were upset about the tone the president used, about some of these things he said on that call, and, you know, maybe that's to be accepted. Kelly pointed out that some people don't want to accept these phone calls from the president.

But for him to go after the congresswoman, he does sort of adopt the role, you know, of a political, of a political actor. That's what his job is now.

[16:25:00] He's the chief of staff to the president of the United States.

And it's worth remembering that, you know, the reason the congresswoman was there was because the family opted to have her there, to be present for this conversation. She said that the sergeant had been through her mentoring program that she had a relationship with this family. So it wasn't just sort of a congresswoman injecting herself without the family realizing that she was there and present for the conversation.

It's a difficult situation on all sides, but there's no doubt, Jake, that everyone involved in this has now played a role in politicizing it.

TAPPER: And something else, Sara, Congressman Wilson notwithstanding, John Kelly explained why it was that President Trump said to the widow of La David Johnson, he knew what he was getting into, he knew the risks, because that's what General Dunford told John Kelly when John Kelly found out that his beloved son Robert had been killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

MURRAY: Right.

TAPPER: President Trump two days ago said that he never said that. He stood in front -- I think he was maybe in the Roosevelt Room or the East Room, he was in the cabinet room and he told reporters he never said that I never said. John Kelly just explained that he did say it, he brought in the context, he brought in the explanation, he brought in how President Trump meant it, although as you point out, the family didn't take it that way. But now, we know that he did in fact say it, even though President Trump claimed that he did not.

MURRAY: Well, that's right, and it's worth noting that even from the podium yesterday, Sarah Sanders didn't dispute the language, didn't dispute that actual sentence that Trump had said he knew what he was getting into. He just said that the president, you know, his tone was what it should have been. He was calling to offer his condolences.

And I also think when you think about the framing of these conversations -- I mean, General Kelly having this conversation with General Dunford, two people who served in the military, who are coming from a very different background from President Trump, I mean, that's the kind of thing that maybe sounds very different coming from General Dunford to General Kelly than it does coming from President Trump, someone who's never served in the military, speaking to someone who is just lost her husband, you know, in an incident that we still have a lot of unanswered questions about.

So, there are a lot of different things that play into this and again, this is one of the reasons that this is such a difficult task for a president, you're not just speaking to people, you know, in the worst moments of their lives, but anything you say, you don't know if anything you say is going to help at all. General Kelly seems to suggest that there's nothing you can do to help anyway, and that some people are just not going to want to hear it. Maybe that would have been the case no matter what the president said, maybe it was this specific sentence.

You know, either way, this is certainly not the outcome they were hoping would come from these calls and certainly not the conversation that they were hoping to have. And it does in some ways overshadow questions about what actually happened during this mission. How did we lose four American soldiers in an operation that many felt was supposed to be largely safe?

TAPPER: And we'll have more of that part of the story later in the show. But you're right, a lot of raw emotions, and the best of intentions tragically unrealized.

Sara Murray at the White House, thank you so much.

When we come back, our discussion will continue about General John Kelly's remarkable comments.

Plus, we're going to hear from a Gold Star father whose son was killed in the war in Afghanistan. Stick around.