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Exclusive: John Kelly goes on the record to confirm several disturbing stories about Trump

By Jake Tapper, Anchor and Chief Washington Correspondent

(CNN) — John Kelly, the longest-serving White House chief of staff for Donald Trump, offered his harshest criticism yet of the former president in an exclusive statement to CNN.

Kelly set the record straight with on-the-record confirmation of a number of damning stories about statements Trump made behind closed doors attacking US service members and veterans, listing a number of objectionable comments Kelly witnessed Trump make firsthand.

“What can I add that has not already been said?” Kelly said, when asked if he wanted to weigh in on his former boss in light of recent comments made by other former Trump officials. “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.’ 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 defense 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,” Kelly continued. “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 – in expectation that someone will take action. A person who admires autocrats and 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,” Kelly concluded. “God help us.”

In the statement, Kelly is confirming, on the record, a number of details in a 2020 story in The Atlantic by editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, including Trump turning to Kelly on Memorial Day 2017, as they stood among those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery, and saying, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

Those details also include Trump’s inability to understand why the American public respects former prisoners of war and those shot down in combat. Then-candidate Trump of course said in front of a crowd in 2015 that former Vietnam POW Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, was “not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” But behind closed doors, sources told Goldberg, this lack of understanding went on to cause Trump to repeatedly call McCain a “loser” and to refer to former President George H. W. Bush, who was also shot down as a Navy pilot in World War II, as a “loser.”

CNN reached out to the Trump campaign Monday afternoon, telling officials there that a former administration official had confirmed, on the record, a number of details about the 2020 Atlantic story, without naming Kelly, and seeking comment. The Trump campaign responded by insulting the character and credibility of retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley, who had nothing to do with this story. An updated statement from a Trump campaign spokesperson on Tuesday said, “John Kelly has totally clowned himself with these debunked stories he’s made up because he didn’t serve his president well while working as chief of staff.”

The Atlantic article also described Trump’s 2018 visit to France for the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, where, according to several senior staff members, Trump said he did not want to visit the graves of American soldiers buried in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris because, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” During that same trip to France, the article reported, Trump said the 1,800 US Marines killed in the Belleau Wood were “suckers” for getting killed.

And Kelly’s statement adds context to a story in the book “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” by Susan Glasser and Peter Baker, in which Trump, after a separate trip to France in 2017, tells Kelly he wants no wounded veterans in a military parade he’s trying to have planned in his honor. Inspired by the Bastille Day parade, except for the section of the parade featuring wounded French veterans in wheelchairs, Trump tells Kelly, “Look, I don’t want any wounded guys in the parade.”

“Those are the heroes,” Kelly said. “In our society, there’s only one group of people who are more heroic than they are – and they are buried over in Arlington.”

“I don’t want them,” Trump said. “It doesn’t look good for me.”

The story squares with another recent story from Goldberg in The Atlantic, a profile of retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, in which Trump does not react well to seeing severely wounded Army Captain Luis Avila singing “God Bless America” at a welcome event for the new chairman. “Why do you bring people like that here? No one wants to see that, the wounded.”

Kelly’s statement also refers to a remark Trump made in response to that same article, which describes Milley, in the closing days of the Trump presidency in 2020, receiving intelligence that the Chinese military feared Trump was about to order a military strike on it. Milley, in a call authorized by Trump administration officials, reassured his Chinese counterparts that such a strike was not going to happen.

That call was first reported in 2021 in the book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, but Trump said this past week on his social media site that the call was “an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH.”

Asked for reaction to the suggestion that he deserves execution, Milley told Norah O’Donnell of “60 Minutes” that he wouldn’t “comment directly on those, those things. But I can tell you that this military, this soldier, me, will never turn our back on that Constitution.”

Kelly’s statement to CNN comes days after former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson sat down with CNN in an interview promoting her new book, “Enough,” and warned the public that “Donald Trump is the most grave threat we will face to our democracy in our lifetime, and potentially in American history.”

“Enough,” interestingly, contains a scene in which Hutchinson and then-White House communications director Alyssa Farah Griffin push back against Goldberg’s 2020 story. Griffin issued a statement to The Atlantic after that story posted denying the report.

Reached for comment over the weekend, Griffin said, “Despite publicly praising the military and claiming to be the most pro-military president, there’s a demonstrable record of Trump bashing the most decorated service members in our country, from Gen. Mattis to Kelly to Milley, to criticizing the wounded or deceased like John McCain. Donald Trump will fundamentally never understand service the way those who have actually served in uniform will, and it’s one of the countless reasons he’s unfit to be commander in chief.”

No other presidential candidate in history has had so many detractors from his inner circle. His former secretary of defense, Mark Esper, told CNN in November 2022, “I think he’s unfit for office. … He puts himself before country. His actions are all about him and not about the country. And then, of course, I believe he has integrity and character issues as well.”

Trump’s former attorney general, Bill Barr, told CBS in June that “he is a consummate narcissist. And he constantly engages in reckless conduct. … He will always put his own interests, and gratifying his own ego, ahead of everything else, including the country’s interests. Our country can’t, you know, can’t be a therapy session for you know, a troubled man like this.”

This story has been updated with additional reaction.

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CNN’s Kristen Holmes contributed to this story.

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