An American general who served as Donald Trump’s chief of staff in the White House for 18 months has gone on the record to back up a series of unflattering stories about the former US president, which had previously been attributed to anonymous sources.
John Kelly, a retired Marine general, was Mr Trump’s top official in the White House from July of 2017 to January of 2019. After leaving the job, he became an increasingly outspoken public critic of the then-president.
On Monday, US time, he gave a statement to CNN in which he accused Mr Trump of denigrating fallen American soldiers, and expressed concern about the former president’s continuing influence in politics.
“A person that thinks those who defend their country in uniform, or are shot down or seriously wounded in combat, or spend years being tortured as POWs are all ‘suckers’ because ‘there is nothing in it for them’,” Gen Kelly said.
“A person that did not want to be seen in the presence of military amputees because ‘it doesn’t look good for me’. A person who demonstrated open contempt for a Gold Star family, for all Gold Star families, on TV during the 2016 campaign, and rants that our most precious heroes who gave their lives in America’s defence are ‘losers’, and wouldn’t visit their graves in France.
“A person who is not truthful regarding his position on the protection of unborn life, on women, on minorities, on evangelical Christians, on Jews, on working men and women. A person that has no idea what America stands for and has no idea what America is all about. A person who cavalierly suggests that a selfless warrior who has served his country for 40 years in peacetime and war should lose his life for treason.
“A person who admires murderous dictators. A person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law.
“There is nothing more that can be said. God help us.”
Some parts of Gen Kelly’s statement referred to remarks Mr Trump made in public, including: his mockery of the Republican senator John McCain, who has since died, for getting captured and tortured in Vietnam; his belittlement of a Gold Star family (a US term for the family of a fallen soldier); and more recently his suggestion that General Mark Milley, “in times gone by”, would have been put to death for a “treasonous act”.
Gen Milley, in his role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reached out to his Chinese counterpart twice, in late 2020 and early 2021, to stress that the US was “not going to attack” China. He feared Mr Trump might spark a conflict, intentionally or otherwise, while trying to remain in office after losing the presidential election.
In a subsequent congressional hearing, Gen Milley said he had informed members of Mr Trump’s inner circle about the phone calls, but not the president himself. This is the act Mr Trump described as “treasonous”.
“I’m not going to comment directly on (Mr Trump’s remarks) but I can tell you that this military, this soldier, me, will never turn our back on the constitution,” Gen Milley told the US version of 60 Minutes last week. Asked whether there was anything inappropriate or treasonous about his interactions with China, he replied: “Absolutely not.”
Other parts of Gen Kelly’s statement alluded to revelations from a pair of articles, one published by The Atlanticin 2020 and the other just last month.
The first of these articles alleged that Mr Trump had made disrespectful comments about American soldiers on a trip to France in 2018, during which he controversially cancelled his planned visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.
“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” Mr Trump reportedly said of the cemetery, in which thousands of fallen soldiers from World War I are buried.
On the same trip, he was alleged to have called soldiers “suckers” for having gotten killed during the war.
The article also described an incident on Memorial Day in 2017, when Mr Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery, near the White House, with Gen Kelly, whose son is among the soldiers buried there.
“I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” he reportedly asked his chief of staff.
A fellow general and friend of Gen Kelly’s, speaking anonymously, told The Atlantic Mr Trump “can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself” and “thinks anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had a sucker”. Hence his confusion about the fallen soldiers.
At the time it was published, the anonymously sourced article was dismissed by Mr Trump as “fake news”. Gen Kelly, who was already widely assumed to have been among those sources, has now put his name to the claims.
The second Atlantic article, largely focused on Gen Milley, described another incident involving Mr Trump, during a ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
Gen Milley had selected a severely wounded Army captain, Luis Avila, to sing God Bless America at the ceremony. Capt Avila, a veteran of five combat tours, had lost his leg in an IED attack in Afghanistan.
“Why do you bring people like that here? No one wants to see that, the wounded,” Mr Trump allegedly said to Gen Milley afterwards, within earshot of witnesses, before telling him not to let Capt Avila appear in public again.
Mr Trump has not yet responded to Gen Kelly’s statement.
Previously, when Gen Kelly spoke out against Mr Trump’s public criticism of General James Mattis (who had been his defence secretary), the then-president said his former chief of staff “was totally exhausted by the job”, had “slinked away into obscurity” and was seeking to “come back for a piece of the limelight”.