On Tuesday morning, the White House, not just President Donald Trump, went out of its way to turn Chief of Staff John Kelly’s dead son into a political football for the purpose of attacking Barack Obama’s character.
Trump falsely claimed during a Rose Garden press conference on Monday that his predecessors had not called the families of U.S. servicemen and women killed in action. The next day, Trump turned Kelly and his late son, who was killed by a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010, into political pawns.
“To the best of my knowledge, I think I've called every family of somebody that's died,” Trump told Fox News radio host Brian Kilmeade on Tuesday morning. “As far as other representatives, I don't know, I mean you could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”
Kelly, a retired Marine general, is the most senior U.S. military officer to have lost a child in ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before long, news organizations began reporting that Obama had indeed failed to call Kelly after his son’s death—and attributing the fact to a “senior White House official.” The West Wing was looking to backstop Trump’s claim without attaching anyone’s name to the attack.
President Obama “did not call Gen. Kelly after the death of his son,” the unnamed White House official began telling political reporters.
White House officials, save for Trump himself, are clearly not enthusiastic to affix their names to this politicization of Kelly’s kid.
The Daily Beast confirmed that senior White House officials signed off on this specific line of attack as legitimate communications strategy to back up the president's impromptu remark. When The Daily Beast emailed White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to ask if she was an official telling reporters at multiple news outlets that Obama did not call Kelly, she declined to comment on the record.
She also did not respond to a question regarding if Kelly personally signed off on turning his deceased son into a political weapon to attack Trump’s predecessor this week.
Kelly has previously been reticent to invoke his son’s death in public. Shortly after he was killed, the elder Kelly spoke at a gathering of the Military Officers Association of America. Before taking the stage, he told the Marine introducing him, “Please don’t mention my son,” according to a 2011 Washington Post profile.
Obama administration officials were shaken by Trump’s revisiting of the attack line. It was noted that Kelly and his wife attended a Gold Star families breakfast at the White House in 2011 and sat at the First Lady’s table. But that point seemed secondary to the shock many felt that the administration was using the death as a political cudgel.
Alyssa Mastromonaco, the Obama deputy chief of staff, who had harshly criticized Trump when he first made the charge on Monday, told The Daily Beast that she was “traumatized” to see him do it again on Tuesday. On Twitter, Obama's national security spokesman Ned Price, encouraged Kelly to put a “stop” to “this inane cruelty.” Other former Obama officials simply couldn't fathom that Kelly would have signed off on this, to the point where they said it was affecting them on a human level.
“This debate is so sad,” Tommy Vietor, a veteran of the 2008 Obama campaign who later served as a National Security Council spokesman, said on Tuesday. “People should read the speech Gen. Kelly gave at the service of two Marines who died shortly after his son did. I think that’s the tone we should use when we talk about fallen service members. We shouldn’t politicize these things.”
—With additional reporting by Sam Stein.