It’s Time for the Former General John Kelly to Speak Out About Trump’s Views on the Military
By John Cassidy
September 5, 2020
John Kelly appears to be in a unique position to confirm whether the President called U.S service members who died in combat “losers” and “suckers.”
It’s been two days since The Atlantic published an article claiming that Donald Trump had called U.S. service members who died in combat “losers” and “suckers,” and the uproar over the story hasn’t relented. Other news outlets, including Fox News, have confirmed various parts of the story, while some current and former members of the Trump Administration have called parts of it false. The best way to resolve the controversy would be for John Kelly, the highly decorated military veteran who served as Trump’s chief of staff, from 2017 to 2019, to say publicly what he knows. He ought to do this without hesitation.
So far, Kelly hasn’t commented on The Atlantic’s story, even though he features in it so prominently that Trump suggested on Friday that Kelly might have been one of its sources, who weren’t named. The former four-star general was with the President in Paris, in November, 2018, when Trump abruptly cancelled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, in Belleau, blaming poor weather. After Trump decided not to go to the cemetery, Kelly stood in for him as a representative of the Administration.
On the face of things, Kelly would be in a unique position to vouch for, or knock down, a key passage of The Atlantic’s story, which reads, “In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, ‘Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.’ ” In a separate conversation on the same trip to France, The Atlantic’s story reports, Trump referred to some of the U.S. marines who are buried at the French cemetery “as ‘suckers’ for getting killed.”
Kelly hasn’t denied The Atlantic’s story, but neither has he publicly confirmed it. According to a report by Annie Karni, a White House correspondent for the Times, he “has told associates that a retired four-star general should not come out against a sitting president in the heat of a political campaign.” Karni also reported that a close associate of Kelly’s, Anthony C. Zinni, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, said, “He wants to avoid taking a position that might be perceived as political. I also think he takes to heart the commitment to confidentiality in matters related to their interaction with the president.”
Keeping the military out of politics and following through on a commitment of confidentiality are both commendable goals, and, in normal times, they might be enough to warrant Kelly’s silence. But these aren’t normal times, and this isn’t a normal President. Since entering the White House, Trump has repeatedly flouted the Constitution by defying congressional subpoenas, obstructing special-counsel investigations, and claiming that he has the power to deploy troops in American cities without the approval of governors. Like all members of the military and government officials, Kelly swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies, “foreign and domestic,” when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, in 1970. In addition to creating virtually unprecedented political strife, Trump, as Commander-in-Chief, now stands accused of scorning the roughly 1.3 million active-duty members of the U.S. military, plus the more than eight hundred thousand people who serve in the reserves, and the roughly eighteen million veterans.
If Kelly can confirm key elements of The Atlantic’s story, he surely owes it to these current and former service members, and to the rest of the country, to stand up and do so. If he can’t confirm some of the allegations, he should still come forward and speak about Trump’s attitude toward the military. He could follow the example of John Bolton, Trump’s former national-security adviser, who was also on the 2018 trip to Paris. Referring to the offensive comments about the American war dead that Trump allegedly made, Bolton told the Times, “I didn’t hear that. I’m not saying he didn’t say them later in the day or another time, but I was there for that discussion.” In an interview with Bloomberg News, Bolton said, “I have not heard anybody say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like the Donald Trump I know.’ ” Bolton also said, “I don’t think he really holds anybody in high regard except his family.”
As Kelly has maintained his silence, Trump and his associates have been pushing back aggressively against the story. On Friday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, accused The Atlantic of “peddling conspiracy-laden propaganda.” On Twitter, one of McEnany’s predecessors, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who flew to Paris with Trump in 2018, called the story “BS” and added, “I was actually there and one of the people part of the discussion—this never happened.” Another former Trump aide, Jordan Karem, said that the story was “not even close to being factually accurate.”
Meanwhile, a number of other media organizations said they had independently confirmed various elements of The Atlantic’s story, including the remarks about “losers” that Trump was reported to have made in Paris. Citing a “senior Defense Department official with firsthand knowledge of events and a senior U.S. Marine Corps officer who was told about Trump’s comments,” James LaPorta, of the Associated Press, wrote, “The defense officials said Trump made the comments as he begged off visiting the cemetery outside Paris during a meeting following his presidential daily briefing on the morning of Nov. 10, 2018.” The A.P. story goes on: “Staffers from the National Security Council and the Secret Service told Trump that rainy weather made helicopter travel to the cemetery risky, but they could drive there. Trump responded by saying he didn’t want to visit the cemetery because it was ‘filled with losers,’ the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss it publicly.”
Jennifer Griffin, a national-security correspondent for Fox News, cited in her report a former Administration official who was on the trip to Paris with Trump. This person said that Trump cancelled the trip to the French cemetery because he was mad at Emmanuel Macron, the French President. Reporting on other sets of conversations between the President and his aides, but quoting the same official, Griffin said that Trump remarked, of the Vietnam War, “It was a stupid war. Anyone who went was a sucker,” and said of American veterans generally, “What’s in it for them? They don’t make any money.”
According to The Atlantic, “What was in it for them?” was the question Trump asked Kelly on Memorial Day, in 2017, during a visit to Arlington Cemetery, the final resting place of Kelly’s son, Robert, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, who was killed in Afghanistan, in 2010. Citing sources close to Kelly, The Atlantic said that Kelly initially believed Trump was “making a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America’s all-volunteer force. But later he came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices.”
Kelly clearly does. He retired from the military in January, 2016, after a forty-five-year career that included three tours of duty in Iraq and culminated in him serving as head of the U.S. Southern Command. That amounts to a great deal of service to the United States, but Kelly can do for the country one more vital act. He should speak out.