MIAMI - Gen. John F. Kelly said Thursday President Donald Trump did the best he could when he expressed his condolences to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright.
Kelly, who serves as Trump's chief of staff, also said it stunned him and broke his heart when Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, listened in on the conversation Trump had with Sgt. La David Johnson's pregnant widow, Myeshia Johnson, before his body arrived at Miami International Airport.
"I thought at least that was sacred," Kelly said during a conference at the press briefing room. "When I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in this country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor."
Wilson was trying to comfort Johnson's family during the return of remains ceremony in Miami Tuesday when she said Trump told the grieving widow that Johnson knew what he signed up for. Johnson's aunt Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who adopted him when his mother, Samara Johnson, died in 1999, said she also heard Trump disrespect her family.
Kelly also said Johnson, who is from Miami-Dade, and the three other U.S. Army soldiers who died in Africa were likely teaching Republic of Niger soldiers how to fight against ISIS. Kelly said the U.S. has soldiers all across Africa teaching their counterparts how to be better soldiers and how to respect human rights, while fighting Islamic militants.
"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 were at war, and when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends," Kelly said about the message he got from a casualty officer when his son died.
"That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day."
During the politicization of the soldiers deaths, Trump mentioned Kelly Tuesday with Fox News Radio when he replied, "You could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?"
Kelly said the scandal prompted him to go to Arlington National Cemetery Wednesday and "go walk among the finest men and women on this earth" to collect his thoughts for about an hour. Kelly's son Robert Kelly, a 29-year-old U.S. Marine, was killed in Afghanistan Nov. 9, 2010.
"I went over there for about 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," Kelly said.
Kelly said he told Trump that Obama didn't call, but he didn't hold that against the president.
"We are only one of 5,500 American families who have suffered the loss of a child in this war," Kelly wrote to The Washington Post in an e-mail. "The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others."
During a ceremony on Memorial Day, Kelly and Trump visited his grave at the Arlington National Cemetery.
“We grieve with you. We honor you. And we pledge to you that we will always remember Robert and what he did for all of us,” Trump said, singling out the Kelly family during his remarks to the nation that day.
Kelly acknowledged many questions remain unanswered about the Oct. 4 ambush and said the ongoing investigation shouldn't imply incrimination.
"We are at the highest level of the U.S. government. The people who will answer those questions will be at the other end of the military pyramid," Kelly said. "I am sure the special forces group is conducting -- I know they are conducting an investigation. That investigation, of course under the auspices of AfriCom, ultimately will go to the Pentagon."
According to a U.S. official who talked to CNN Johnson was leaving a meeting in an unarmored pickup truck Oct. 4 when enemy fighters targeted him and his team with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Johnson likely got separated when they all got off the unarmored trucks to run for cover and return fire.
"The threats at the time were deemed to be unlikely, so there was no overhead armed air cover during the engagement," U.S. Army Col. Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for Africa Command said during a news conference after the attack.
During the firefight, U.S. troops called in French fighter jets. According to Reuters' sources the French responded but circled overhead without firing, because the enemy was too close to the U.S.-Nigerien patrol. Reuters also reported the incident upset French officials over the U.S. military's lack of contingency plans.
Johnson, who was left behind during the evacuation, was able to activate his military beacon, and the military was able to track him for a bit before the signal faded. Cheadle said U.S., French and Nigerien troops searched for him, but by the time the Nigerien troops found him Oct. 6, he was dead.
"We had everything, jets, rotary wings, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), various platforms, human intelligence, signals intelligence -- you name it," Cheadle said. "There was a full-court press by all of the DOD, the Nigerien government, the Department of State and the French to help us recover our lost one."
During the Oct. 7 return of remains ceremony at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Trump was playing golf with Sen. Lindsey Graham. Meanwhile Wilson, who was present at MIA and has made herself available to the family, is getting threats at her Washington office.
Johnson's remains were at a funeral home in Hollywood Thursday. The closed-casket viewing will be from 4 to 8 p.m., Friday, and the funeral service from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, at the Christ The Rock Church, 11000 Stirling Rd., in Cooper City. The interment will be a the Hollywood Memorial Gardens, 3001 N. 72 St.
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