John Kelly knows what happens when troops are killed. He experienced it firsthand. – Washington Post

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Oct. 19 defended President Trump’s call to the widow of a soldier killed in action. (Reuters)

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly defended President Trump on Thursday, saying that Trump had “bravely” called families of four fallen American soldiers.

Kelly’s appearance was an attempt to manage a growing controversy over Trump’s contacts with the families of slain service members.

“Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or Coast Guardsmen in combat,” he said.

For Kelly, the reality of death on the battlefield strikes close to home.

The 67-year-old retired four-star general served for more than 40 years in the Marines, and during his years of service he experienced two losses that were intensely personal: that of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps, killed in action when his unit was ambushed in Iraq in 2004 while providing convoy escort to Kelly, who was the assistant division commander at the time; and that of his son, Second Lt. Robert Kelly, in 2010, who was killed when he stepped on hidden explosives in Afghanistan.

[John Kelly’s fiery defense of Trump’s shot at Obama and Gold Star phone call, annotated]

A comrade’s death

In Thursday’s press briefing, Kelly discussed what happens when a service member is killed in action:

Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they’re packed in ice, typically at the airhead, and then they’re flown to, usually, Europe, where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the — with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with a casualty officer escort that takes them home.

Kelly knows this sad ritual all too well.

In April 2004, Kelly’s unit came under what he later called a “complex ambush” near an American outpost in the rural town of Mahmudiyah, Iraq. As the group of Marines fought their way out of the attack, Pfc. Chance Phelps (posthumously promoted to lance corporal) was killed by gunfire.

Kelly was “nearly right next to” Phelps, 19, when he was killed instantly while manning the gun turret, Kelly wrote in a letter to Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, the officer who escorted Phelps’s casket back to the United States, describing that day’s turn of events and the final moments of Phelps’s short life.

The convoy of five vehicles had been caught in an ambush, triggered when the lead vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device, Kelly wrote. The other vehicles maneuvered to try to regain control of the situation, coming under intense enemy fire.

“Your Marine’s vehicle was called forward to try and close the back door and prevent the guerrillas escape so we could kill them, and after accomplishing the maneuver and putting his gun in action, he was hit,” Kelly wrote.

“We collected up wounded, dead, and all equipment from the destroyed HMMWV [Humvee], then walked out of the KZ [kill zone] shooting the entire time until we were clear,” Kelly continued.

Back at the combat base, the Marines gathered to remember their fallen comrade, “only just out of high school last May.”

“His buddies spent a few quiet moments and we talked about the loss, and what he meant — what he was like — to them all,” Kelly wrote. “Everyone offered a vignette, most were silly or funny, but that’s the kind of guy he was.”

Strobl’s journey with Phelps is chronicled in the movie “Taking Chance,” which Kelly mentioned in his remarks Thursday.

[Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice]

A son’s death

On Thursday, Kelly also discussed the role of the casualty officer in breaking the tragic news of death to family members.

…a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door. Typically, the mom and dad will answer, the wife. And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places. If the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until — well, for a long, long time. Even after the internment.

For Kelly, the visit came just after 6 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2010. Kelly answered the door at his home in the Washington Navy Yard. Standing outside on the porch was Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., one of Kelly’s oldest and closest friends.

The instant Kelly saw Dunford, dressed in his service uniform, he knew his son Robert was dead.

Months later, in an email interview with the Washington Post, Kelly tried to put into words the pain he felt that morning.

“It was disorienting, almost debilitating,” he wrote in an e-mail. “At the same time my mind went through in detail every memory and image I had of Robert from the delivery room to the voice mail he’d left a few days before he died. . . . It was as graphic as if I was watching a video. . . . It really did seem like hours but was little more than a second or so.”

Robert was 29, and at the time of his death, Kelly and his two sons had participated in a combined 11 combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Robert had surprised his family when, just days after graduating from Florida State University in 2003, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. His older brother, John, had joined as an officer two years earlier.

Kelly is the most senior U.S. military officer to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan, and it was a devastating loss for the family. But the general’s status as a Gold Star parent also endeared him to rank-and-file troops, as the Military Times reported.

“They view him not as an imposing four-star commander, but as one of them: a brawler, a man who has endured the very worst of war, and a general officer who has eschewed the political correctness often exhibited by individuals who attain such rank,” the Military Times wrote.

Kelly’s surviving son is currently serving in Iraq.

[John Kelly, Trump’s new chief of staff, ‘won’t suffer idiots and fools’]

The phone calls that really matter

On Thursday, Kelly also sought to clarify the typical nature of interactions between senior U.S. officials and Gold Star families.

As the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe reported, Kelly explained that the process has never typically involved a phone call from the president to Gold Star families. Rather, letters were the more common response.

“I don’t believe any president, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high, that presidents call,” Kelly said.

As a Marine Corps general, Kelly had spoken with scores of grieving parents and written hundreds of condolence letters, The Post’s Greg Jaffe reported. In each of those interactions, he tried to explain why the loss of a beloved child was meaningful, noble and worth the family’s pain.

“I guess over time I had convinced myself that I could imagine what it would be like to lose a son or daughter,” he said in an interview in 2011. “You try to imagine it so that you can write the right kind of letters or form the right words to try to comfort. But you can’t even come close. It is unimaginable.”

“The only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they can imagine, and that is from their buddies,” Kelly said.

“In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really matter.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday night, Trump took to Twitter, again criticizing Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), a friend of the family of slain service member Sgt. La David T. Johnson.

The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 20, 2017

Wilson was with Johnson’s widow when the president called and listened to the conversation on speakerphone. The congresswoman has said that the Johnson family was “astonished” by Trump’s remarks, and that the widow was “crying the whole time.” Kelly appeared to effectively confirm Wilson’s account. Johnson’s aunt, who raised him as her own son after his mother died when he was young, has backed up Wilson’s version of events.

Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.

Read more:

Analysis | What John Kelly got wrong about Rep. Frederica Wilson and the Johnson family 

The private life of Sgt. La David Johnson, the slain soldier ensnared in a Trump controversy 

Fallen soldier’s mother: ‘Trump did disrespect my son’

Trump offered a grieving military father $25,000 in a phone call 

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Obama Attacks Tactics of Republican Candidate for Governor in Virginia – New York Times

RICHMOND, Va. — Former President Barack Obama, returning to the campaign trail on Thursday for the first time since leaving the White House, issued an unexpectedly stinging attack on the immigration-focused campaign of the Republican candidate for Virginia governor.

Seeking to lift the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, the Democratic nominee for governor, Mr. Obama abandoned nine months of self-imposed political silence to accuse Ed Gillespie, the Republican, of fear-mongering tactics that he called “damaging and corrosive to our democracy.”

While not mentioning President Trump by name, Mr. Obama seemed to have the racially tinged 2016 presidential campaign on his mind as he denounced a controversial commercial that Mr. Gillespie has aired that targets the gang MS-13 — which has roots in Central America — and features a group of heavily tattooed Salvadoran prisoners.

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“What he’s really trying to deliver is fear,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Gillespie. “What he really believes is that if you scare enough voters, it might score just enough votes to win an election.”

It is, Mr. Obama continued, “as cynical as politics gets.”

The former president’s visit, which drew about 7,500 people to the Greater Richmond Convention Center, was his second campaign appearance of the day. Earlier Thursday, Mr. Obama stumped in Newark for Philip D. Murphy, the Democratic nominee for governor in New Jersey, largely ignoring Mr. Murphy’s Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

Yet while Mr. Murphy is comfortably ahead, Mr. Northam is locked in a competitive race. A former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Washington establishment fixture, Mr. Gillespie has turned to more hard-line tactics in an effort to win over both swing voters and Mr. Trump’s supporters.

While Virginia is increasingly Democratic — Mr. Obama carried it twice — voter turnout plummets when it holds its governor’s election the year after a presidential vote. And that often results in an electorate that is older and whiter than what is reflected in White House races.

Mr. Obama pointedly invoked this trend.

“Sometimes y’all get a little sleepy, get a little complacent,” he said of Democrats in off-year elections, warning that they would have no right to complain about their elected officials if they “slept through” Election Day.

Speaking directly to young Virginians, the 56-year-old former president, wearing a suit but no tie, tried his hand at millennial vernacular: “I think it’s great that you hashtag and meme, but I need you to vote,” Mr. Obama said.

While avoiding any direct discussion of his successor, Mr. Obama offered his harshest assessment of the Trump era since leaving the White House.

“Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we’ve got politics infecting our communities,” he said.

As they spoke at the rally, Mr. Northam and the Democratic governor he hopes to succeed, Terry McAuliffe, were, however, glad to link Mr. Trump and Mr. Gillespie.

“He’s nothing more than a Washington lobbyist who’s now become Donald Trump’s chief lobbyist,” said Mr. Northam, adding that “we cannot accept that this is the new normal.”

Mr. McAuliffe, who is thought to be considering a White House bid, was even more succinct about Mr. Gillespie’s attempt to straddle between Trump loyalists and Trump skeptics. “Ed Gillespie is treating the president of his party like a communicable disease,” the governor said.

If Mr. Obama demurred from a frontal assault that could provoke the Twitter-happy president, he was eager to depict Mr. Gillespie as a Trump stand-in.

Mr. Gillespie until recently had been linking Mr. Northam to MS-13 by pointing out that the Democrat opposed a measure in the State Senate that would have banned sanctuary cities in Virginia. (No localities in the state have tried to become sanctuary cities.)

Noting that Mr. Northam, an Army veteran, is a child neurologist, Mr. Obama said that it “strains credulity” to think that the lieutenant governor is “suddenly cozying up to street gangs.”

But Mr. Obama went well beyond mockery, accusing Mr. Gillespie of “fanning anti-immigrant sentiment” and all but calling him a hypocrite for airing the ad after he spent years warning other Republicans to stay away from such a divisive issue.

“He’s gone on record in the past condemning the very same kind of rhetoric that he’s using right now,” Mr. Obama said, careful to avoid mentioning Mr. Gillespie by name.

The Republican’s campaign, perhaps wanting to avoid a quarrel with a former president still popular here, offered a muted response to Mr. Obama’s broadsides.

“It’s no surprise President Obama would level Lieutenant Governor Northam’s attacks against Ed at a Northam campaign event,” said David Abrams, Mr. Gillespie’s spokesman.

Mr. Obama was far more restrained discussing Mr. Gillespie’s criticism of Mr. Northam for supporting the removal of Virginia’s Confederate statues.

Speaking in a former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, a city whose most stately boulevard is lined with monuments to the leaders of the Lost Cause, the former president did not directly mention the statues.

“We shouldn’t use the most painful parts of our history just to score political points,” Mr. Obama said.

He did, though, draw laughs by noting that he is a distant relative of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, who is chiseled in marble a few miles away.

Democrats hoped Mr. Obama’s appearance would rouse African-Americans in this city, where about half the population is black, and across central Virginia.

Mr. Obama, Democratic Party officials said, may be one of the few figures famous enough to draw attention away from Mr. Trump, whose near-daily pronouncements and provocations have overshadowed this race.

Yet while Mr. Obama’s return to the campaign trail was sure to draw ample news coverage — 18 cameras lined a riser in the back of the hall — it was less clear whether he could transfer his loyal following to Mr. Northam.

Democrats suffered grievous down-ballot losses during Mr. Obama’s presidency in off-year elections, including the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey in 2009, when he similarly sought to rally African-American voters. Those losses presaged the Tea Party-fueled Republican sweep in 2010, a year that saw Republicans seize statehouses across the country to take control of the decennial redistricting process.

In New Jersey, Mr. Obama sought to frame the race between Mr. Murphy and Ms. Guadagno as an opportunity to right the course in a country that he saw as faltering in its role as an example to the world.

“The world counts on America having its act together,” he said.

“You can’t take this election, or any election, for granted,” he added, and then paused before continuing, “I don’t know if you all noticed that.”

The audience reacted with laughter followed by muted sighs.

When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Murphy was more blunt in criticizing Mr. Trump’s record. He alluded to Mr. Trump’s decision to end a program started by Mr. Obama that protected young undocumented immigrants from deportation and said, “Dreamers, and we’ve got 22,000 in this state, are every bit as American as our four kids and are being shown the door.”

Mr. Murphy said that in the Trump era, “governors will never have mattered more,” and he promised that he would stand up to the president.

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Senate approves budget in crucial step forward for Republican tax cuts – Washington Post

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised the budget passed in the Senate on Oct. 19 by a vote of 51 to 49. (U.S. Senate)

The Senate approved the Republican-backed budget Thursday night, a major step forward for the GOP effort to enact tax cuts.

The budget’s passage will allow the GOP to use a procedural maneuver to pass tax legislation through the Senate with 50 or more votes, removing the need for support from Democratic senators.

“Tonight, we completed the first step toward replacing our broken tax code … We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to replace a failing tax code that holds Americans back with one that actually works for them,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said following the 51-49 vote.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who believes the budget ought to reduce the deficit, was the only Republican to vote against it.

The budget opens the door to expanding the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Tax cuts that have become Republicans’ essential policy objective since the Senate failed to pass multiple bills to rewrite Obamacare. Approval of the budget is expected to help shore up ties between Senate GOP leaders and President Trump, who is angry at Republicans’ failure on health care and bent on Congress approving a tax-reform package by the end of the year.

At the same time, by agreeing to the massive tax cut, Senate Republicans have officially moved the party far away from its promised goal of ensuring that the tax plan would not add to the deficit. The White House and House Republicans had vowed that the tax cuts would be offset with new revenue from the elimination of certain deductions, but that is no longer the GOP’s goal. Instead, they have abandoned longstanding party orthodoxy of deficit reduction and are seeking a political win after months of frustration on Capitol Hill.

The White House, in a statement issued Thursday night, said Trump “applauds the Senate” for passing the budget resolution and “taking an important step in advancing the Administration’s pro-growth and pro-jobs legislative agenda.”

The Senate approved an amendment Thursday night that paved the way for the House to adopt its version of the budget. This could eliminate the need for a conference committee, which might expedite consideration of tax reform by several weeks, according to a House GOP aide.

“I applaud the Senate for passing a budget,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement. “This action keeps us on track to enacting historic tax reform that will mean more jobs, fairer taxes, and bigger paychecks for American families. We want Americans to wake up in the new year with a new tax code, one that is simple and fair.”

Political pressure is on the GOP leaders’ side: Republicans cannot cut taxes without first passing the budget resolution, giving them a strong incentive to support it.

Trump had projected confidence about the Senate’s ability to approve a budget.

“I think we have the votes for the budget, which will be phase one of our massive tax cuts and reform,” Trump said during a meeting with Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Roselló. “But I think we’ll be successful tonight with respect to the budget . . . I think we have the votes. And frankly, I think we have the votes for the tax cuts, which will follow fairly shortly thereafter.”

The vote came after just over six hours of amendment votes in which Democrats sought to call attention to controversial aspects of the GOP tax plan.

Democrats had planned to focus on four key tax-reform topics intended to make Republicans cast politically awkward votes: tax cuts for the wealthy, tax increases for the middle class, reductions to Medicare and Medicaid spending, and increases to the budget deficit.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) proposed an amendment to prevent tax increases on people making less than $250,000 a year. The measure would have also required the Senate to approve a tax-reform bill with 60 votes rather than a simple majority. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) called this language a “poison pill,” and the amendment was defeated 51-47.

Not all of the Democratic amendments were related to the tax plan, however. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) offered language aimed at preventing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It failed 52-48.

Several Republican amendments were adopted with broad support. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) proposed language to make the “American tax system simpler and fairer for all Americans,” which passed 98-0. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) proposed an amendment in support of increasing the child tax credit, which passed by voice vote.

Paul, one of the most vocal GOP critics of the party’s budget, proposed several measures to lower the deficit and one designed to make it easier for the upper chamber to repeal Obamacare. The amendments failed.

The GOP appeared to win enough votes to pass its budget Tuesday when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) threw his support behind the proposal, saying it would provide a “path forward on tax reform.” The return of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) from a health-related absence added to leaders’ confidence they have the votes for passage.

Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, meaning they could lose two votes from their own party and still pass the budget. Without Cochran, Republicans would have been able to lose only one vote.

The final amendment offered a moment of levity after a long night of votes. Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) offered language that would eliminate future vote-a-ramas.

The amendment was approved by unanimous voice vote, with applause.

Damian Paletta, Karoun Demirjian and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

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George W. Bush comes out of retirement to deliver a veiled rebuke of Trump – Washington Post

Former president George W. Bush on Thursday delivered a rare political speech in which he warned of threats to American democracy and a decay of civic engagement, a message that was interpreted as a rebuke of President Trump’s divisive leadership style.

At a New York forum sponsored by his presidential center, Bush offered a blunt assessment of a political system corrupted by “conspiracy theories and outright fabrication” in which nationalism has been “distorted into nativism.”

“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” Bush said during a 16-minute address at “The Spirit of Liberty” event. “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone and provides permission for cruelty and bigotry. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”

Bush did not mention Trump by name and former aides emphasized that his message echoed words he has spoken before. But the fact that a former president was sounding the alarm about American values and the United States’ role in the world at a time when Trump has unsettled allies abroad and provoked intense political backlash at home injected his remarks with greater urgency.

The scene was remarkable in part because Bush has largely remained out of the political spotlight since leaving office amid low popularity in 2009 and had made a point not to criticize or second-guess his Democratic successor, Barack Obama. Just hours after Bush completed his speech, Obama also made a veiled critique of the Trump era, calling on Democrats at a New Jersey campaign event to “send a message to the world that we are rejecting a politics of division, we are rejecting a politics of fear.”

That Trump’s two most recent predecessors felt liberated, or perhaps compelled, to reenter the political arena in a manner that offered an implicit criticism of him is virtually unprecedented in modern politics, historians said. Trump has been harshly critical of both Bush and Obama — calling each of them the “worst” president at one time or another — and mercilessly mocked the 43rd president’s brother, Jeb Bush, during the 2016 Republican primary.

George W. Bush was taking aim at Trump’s “roiling of the traditional institutions of the country and, in particular, demeaning the office of the president by a kind of crude or vulgar bashing of opponents,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian and author.

“I think this is Bush throwing down the gauntlet and feeling that this is a man who has gone too far,” Dallek said. The discretion former presidents traditionally afforded their successors “is now sort of fading to the past because of the belligerence of Trump.”

It’s not just the former presidents. Two days ago, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), while receiving the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal, lambasted “half-baked, spurious nationalism” and suggested the United States was abandoning its leadership role, an approach the Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war called “unpatriotic.”

McCain’s critique prompted Trump to warn him to “be careful” because he is prepared to “fight back.”

The common thread among Bush’s and McCain’s words was a defense of the post-World War II liberal order that America helped build which supported strong security alliances, a defense of human rights and an open economic system of free trade, said Richard Fontaine, who served on the National Security Council under Bush and was a foreign policy adviser to McCain.

While Republicans and Democrats have disagreed over the means to achieve such objectives, Trump has opened a direct assault on many of these ideals, Fontaine said.

“The hallmark of McCain’s and Bush’s speeches was to try to re-center us on what have been, since 1945, these traditional ends,” said Fontaine, now the president of the Center for a New American Security.

Before leaving office, Obama had said his goal was to remain out of the political spotlight in part to afford his successor the political space to govern, as Bush had done for him. He cautioned at the time, however, that he would speak out if he saw “core values” at risk.

Since Trump took office, Obama has spoken out on occasion to defend his legacy against Trump’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, unwind U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord and impose new limits on immigration.

On Thursday, Obama returned to the campaign trail, stumping for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. Though he was not as dire as Bush, Obama said in New Jersey that “some of the politics we see now we thought we put that to bed. That’s folks looking 50 years back. It’s the 21st century, not the 19th century.”

He also reminded his audience that “you can’t take this election or any election for granted.” Pausing a beat, he added: “I don’t know if you all noticed that.”

Jennifer Psaki, who worked as White House communications director under Obama, said the unifying themes between Obama and Bush are “humanity and empathy towards the American public.”

The two leaders are not weighing in on the political news of the day, she noted, but are instead “speaking to the conduct, the empathy, the leadership qualities that the American public needs of someone in the Oval Office.”

Bush opened his remarks by speaking in both English and Spanish and noting that refugees from Afghanistan, China, North Korea and Venezuela were seated in the audience. This week, two federal judges temporarily enjoined Trump’s travel ban on immigrants and refugees from several countries.

Bush, who had unsuccessfully attempted to advance legislation that featured a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, later praised the “forgotten dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.”

Bush also warned that “bigotry seems emboldened” in a passage that evoked the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August, which left a female counterprotester dead. Trump had drawn intense criticism from Democrats and some Republicans for failing to clearly and promptly denounce the hate groups and suggesting equivalence between protesters on both sides.

“Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed,” Bush said in a line that drew the most applause. He paused and appeared to grin.

On Twitter, as liberal and moderate pundits praised Bush’s remarks, some far-right commentators mocked them by noting that many had lambasted Bush’s record of lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush’s aides had at times called on the public to rally around the president in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and suggested criticism of Bush was unpatriotic.

Eliot Cohen, who served as a State Department counselor in the Bush administration, said those who consistently attack Bush’s record as a way to delegitimize anything he says could wind up helping Trump continue to sow division by inadvertently validating his tactics.

“Politics are now about discrediting people by ad hominem attacks, not by argumentation,” Cohen said. Those who opposed Bush’s wars have a fair point of view, he said, but their constant “demonization does help make it easier for Trump.”

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Defending Trump, Gen. Kelly Opens His Heart About Death of Soldier-Son – NBCNews.com

WASHINGTON — In heart-felt remarks about his own loss, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former general whose Marine son was killed in Afghanistan, said Thursday he was “stunned” by a Florida lawmaker’s criticism of President Donald Trump’s condolence call to a fallen soldier’s wife.

Kelly described himself as “broken-hearted” coming to work at the White House on Wednesday as he saw Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., on news networks disclosing the private details of Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was among four soldiers killed this month in Niger.

“The only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go walk among the finest men and women on this earth” — those buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Kelly said, adding he walked among the graves for an hour and a half.

Wilson’s comments, Kelly told reporters during the White House press briefing, violated one of the few “sacred” things the country had left — honoring those who have given their lives in service of the U.S.

Kelly strongly defended Trump, who touched off the controversy on Monday by falsely claiming President Barack Obama did not call the families of fallen soldiers.

Kelly called Trump “brave” for attempting to make the difficult condolence calls to families who have lost a loved one.

There is “no perfect way to make that phone call,” Kelly said, disclosing that when he became chief of staff he had advised Trump not to make condolence calls to the grieving families “because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to.”

Kelly, recalling the meaningful calls he and his family received after his son died, said the most important calls are from those in the military who served with their children.

Trump asked Kelly how to make the calls, to which Kelly said he replied that if you have never worn the uniform and have never been in combat “you can’t even imagine how to make that call.”

Watch Kelly’s full remarks here:

Speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room, Kelly disclosed what he was told when informed that his son, 1st Lt. Robert Michael Kelly, died when he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, Kelly recalled of the person who informed him of his son’s death, said his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one percent (who serve the nation). He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died…he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.”

Kelly added, “That’s what the president tried to say to the four families the other day.”

Kelly’s explanation gives additional context to Trump’s comments that were so harshly criticized by Wilson, who ripped the president for telling Johnson that her husband “knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”

A spokesperson for Wilson told NBC News after Kelly’s remarks that the congresswoman would not be making any further comment on the issue “because the focus should be on helping a grieving widow and family heal, not on her or Donald Trump.”

The president told reporters Tuesday to ask Kelly if President Barack Obama called him after his son was killed. Kelly confirmed Thursday that Obama did not call but the chief of staff made clear he did not intend any criticism of Obama and was only stating a fact.

While taking questions from reporters after his comments, Kelly said he would only call on reporters who personally knew Gold Star families.

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Sure, There’s A Health Care Deal. That Doesn’t Mean It Can Pass – NPR

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, talks to reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Carolyn Kaster/AP

Updated at 3:55 p.m. ET

A bipartisan coalition of 24 senators — 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats — has signed on to health care legislation to prop up the individual insurance market and keep premiums down. With the expected support of all Senate Democrats, it could have the votes to pass the chamber. But questions remain over when it might actually get a vote, as well as whether President Trump and House Republicans would bring the bill over the finish line.

“This is a first step: Improve it, and pass it sooner rather than later. Our purpose is to stabilize and then lower the cost of premiums in the individual insurance market for the year 2018 and 2019,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on the Senate floor. Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., crafted the compromise bill.

Alexander and Murray have been working on this legislation for months. Negotiations initially began after the Senate failed to pass legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare back in July.

Most Americans get health insurance through their employer or from the government. About 18 million Americans get their insurance through the individual market established by the Affordable Care Act. “They’re the ones we’re worried about; they’re the ones we’re seeking to help,” Alexander said, noting that includes about 350,000 people in his home state.

“I have to say that after seven years of intense partisanship on these issues, which would lead everyone to believe there was no hope for Republicans and Democrats to come together and work to strengthen our health care, I’m really pleased with this common ground we’ve been able to find,” Murray said on the Senate floor.

President Trump’s decision last week to end subsidies to insurance companies that were allowed under the ACA revived congressional talks. The Trump administration argued — and initial court rulings backed it up — that the payments were illegal because they had not been appropriated by Congress, which has the constitutional authority to spend the government’s money. Although the 2010 health care law required insurers to provide discounts to some low-income consumers and said the government would reimburse them, without authorizing the spending.

The Alexander-Murray proposal would appropriate those subsidies for two years, and tie them to permanent changes to the law that give states more flexibility to seek waivers from the Health and Human Services Department from the ACA’s requirements. It would also allow insurances companies to sell less comprehensive plans to all customers, not just those under age 29 as is the case under current law.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that without the subsidies, premiums will go up, the deficit will rise and up to 16 million Americans could live in counties with no insurance providers at all.

“Unless they are replaced with something else temporarily, there will be chaos in this country and millions of Americans will be hurt,” Alexander warned.

Alexander said Trump has been privately encouraging of the talks, but the president cast doubts on the legislation this week by suggesting it was a “bailout” for insurance companies that he could not support. However, the bill’s sponsors counter that the legislation requires that the subsidies go directly to the consumer to keep premiums down.

The bipartisan bill has potentially critical GOP support from Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona. The trio played a defining role in the defeat of previous GOP health care bills this year. It also has the backing of Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who have competing legislation to dismantle the ACA and replace it with a block grant system to the states.

GOP backers say the bill does not pre-empt the party’s ongoing effort to end Obamacare but rather buys time to keep working on legislation that can muster enough support to pass Congress. Conservatives have balked at Alexander-Murray as a tacit admission that Obamacare will remain the law of the land. House Speaker Paul Ryan said through a spokesman Wednesday that the speaker believes the Senate should remain focused on legislation to end Obamacare, not prop it up.

The proposal puts the GOP in a bind between the policy necessity to act to protect millions of Americans from premium hikes and the political necessity to continue to keep up its effort to dismantle the current system. An August poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60 percent of Americans think Trump and Republicans in Congress are responsible for what happens to the ACA in the future.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not taken a position on the bill, but he is unlikely to bring something to the floor unless it has Trump’s support and the 60 votes needed to clear a potential filibuster, which it should if all 48 Senate Democrats support it along with the 12 Republicans who have signed on. The legislation crowds an already limited legislative calendar. It would need to become law before the end of the year when Congress needs to pass a spending bill package to keep the government running. That spending bill would be the vehicle to fund the insurance subsidies.

Along with Alexander, Collins, Murkowski, McCain, Graham and Cassidy, the additional GOP co-sponsors include Sens. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

The Democratic co-sponsors joining Murray include Sens. Angus King, independent of Maine, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Tom Carper of Delaware, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

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George W. Bush demonstrates the problem with trying to criticize Trump while winning over his voters – Washington Post

Former president George W. Bush gave a speech in New York on Thursday during which he took clear aim at the shifts in political thought that brought Donald Trump to the White House.

Former president George W. Bush spoke out on Oct. 19 against nativism, protectionism and isolationism during an event for the George W. Bush Institute in New York. (Reuters)

“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” Bush said. “At times it can seem that the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions — forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.”

“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism,” he continued. “Forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.”

It’s a demand for a political environment that seems long-lost, with a focus on respect, comity and a faith in the ideals on which the nation was founded. It’s the sort of rhetorical effort that we’ve seen repeatedly over the past 18 months, an effort by more moderate Republicans to both distance themselves from Trump and to call for Americans to aspire to something higher.

What’s happened in the Trump era, though, is that the old Mario Cuomo adage has been reversed. While politicians were once said to campaign in lofty poetry and govern in grinding prose, the leaders of Trump’s party seem to be torn between the desire to offer poetic descriptions of ideals and the need to throw elbows to appeal to an agitated base as Election Day approaches.

Earlier this week, Bush appeared at fundraising events for the candidacy of Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia, entertaining attendees at one luncheon with “vintage George W. Bush,” in the words of one attendee. Gillespie (who once advised Bush) faces a tough contest against Democrat Ralph Northam, who leads in most polls, though often within the margin of error.

Why’s this relevant? Because Gillespie’s candidacy has been criticized for fomenting precisely the sorts of divides that Bush disparaged Thursday.

Gillespie’s campaign has run severalads that echo Trump’s rhetoric about the criminal threat posed by immigrants in the country illegally. Here’s one example:

The campaign for Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie released an ad attacking Democratic opponent Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam on immigration. (Ed Gillespie for Virginia Governor 2017)

The ad’s connotations are clear. Northam supported sanctuary cities, which provide cover to criminal immigrants like MS-13, who’ve been linked to brutal murders in Virginia.

That summary skips over a lot of important caveats, including that Virginia doesn’t have sanctuary cities, that sanctuary cities don’t actually have more crime than other cities and that MS-13 is a domestic gang that includes both immigrants and native-born Americans. Trump’s focused on MS-13 because it’s a convenient way to link illegal immigration and crime, a line he drew explicitly during an event on Long Island  this year.

What Gillespie’s ad hopes to do, explicitly, is foment fear about immigration to his political advantage. It isolates one vote from Northam on sanctuary cities (which The Washington Post analyzed) to tie him and immigrant populations to violent crime.

To put it another way, Northam is being judged by his worst examples. Gillespie’s ads clearly don’t seem to recall the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.

In one sense, this is just politics. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, won election in 1988 after running one of the most notoriously racially divisive ads in U.S. political history. The elder Bush then went on in his inaugural address to describe the optimism of the “thousand points of light” that community organizations working around the country represented. In other words, there’s always been tension between what a campaign does to win and what the winning candidate does once in office.

But Bush’s speech Thursday wasn’t offered in a normal political moment. It was a deliberate condemnation in the very real shift in American politics that Trump both leveraged and fostered. It was a call for a higher sort of politics. Bush has largely stayed away from politics since leaving office. Trump has clearly inspired him to jump back in.

Gillespie’s ads, similarly, aren’t just normal political mudslinging. Gillespie barely won the Republican primary against Corey Stewart, an unabashed advocate of Trumpism who leveraged that position to great effect. That Gillespie won was certainly a relief to the Republican establishment in the state. But Gillespie’s embrace of Trump’s rhetoric in his efforts to unseat Northam is a sign of how that establishment is incorporating the sorts of divisiveness that Bush just condemned.

Few candidates represent only one idea. Bush endorses Gillespie because he is judging the candidate by his best intentions, recognizing that getting an establishment/more moderate Republican into power in Virginia may mean you have to break a few eggs, including using tactics that you find unpleasant. Maybe, as with George H.W. Bush and his “Willie Horton” ad, Gillespie and Bush would argue that he’s simply using Trumpism to win his race.

The difference between using Trumpism to win an election and dispersing and endorsing Trump’s arguments, though, is a subtle one. It also seems like something that the George W. Bush speaking Thursday fervently advocated against.

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Trump Offered the Father of a Fallen Soldier $25000, Then Reneged: Report – The Root

Pool/Getty Images

When a U.S. Army sergeant was killed recently, Donald Trump reportedly made a personal phone call to his grieving father, offered him $25,000 and told him that his staff would start an online fundraiser for the family. The father is now saying that neither the money nor the fundraiser ever came through.

Army Sgt. Dillon Baldridge, 22, and two of his fellow soldiers were killed by an Afghan police officer June 10. The Washington Post reports that Trump called his father, Chris Baldridge, a few weeks after he died. The two men spoke for about 15 minutes, mostly focused on the elder Baldridge’s concerns that his son was shot and killed by someone he was training.

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“I said, ‘Me and my wife would rather our son died in trench warfare,’” Baldridge told the Post. “I feel like he got murdered over there.”

The Baldridges’ experience with Trump adds to mounting and disturbing concerns about how the president deals with families and spouses of fallen soldiers.

When the Post reached out to the White House Wednesday morning, officials there declined to discuss the Baldridges’ situation.

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On Wednesday afternoon, however, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said in a statement, “The check has been sent. It’s disgusting that the media is taking something that should be recognized as a generous and sincere gesture, made privately by the president, and using it to advance the media’s biased agenda.”

No, Lindsay, that’s not what’s happening here. The media simply recognizes that your boss has a troublesome relationship with the truth, and we want to make sure he’s not making empty promises to the families of soldiers who have died in service to this country. The same soldiers, by the way, your boss wants to invoke any time he decides to rail on players in the NFL kneeling during the national anthem. 

As the Post notes, it took President Barack Obama 18 months to fulfill a similar promise to the family of Kayla Mueller, who died while being held captive by the Islamic State group in Syria. Obama had promised an undisclosed amount to be used to set up a charity in Mueller’s name, and when ABC News brought attention to it, the money was finally delivered—and Obama called the situation an oversight.

Trump claimed this week that he has “called every family of somebody that’s died, and it’s the hardest call to make.” The Post interviewed 13 of the at least 20 families that have had family members killed in action since Trump became president in January, and at least half of those families said they had not received a phone call from Trump.

In Baldridge’s father’s case, when he expressed his frustration that the $100,000 death gratuity was going to go to his ex-wife—who was his son’s beneficiary—he said the president made him a promise that shocked him.

“He said, ‘I’m going to write you a check out of my personal account for $25,000,’ and I was just floored,” the elder Baldridge told the Post. “I could not believe he was saying that, and I wish I had it recorded because the man did say this. He said, ‘No other president has ever done something like this,’ but he said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ”

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Baldridge told the Post that he has only received a letter of condolence from Trump.

“I opened it up and read it, and I was hoping to see a check in there, to be honest,” the father said. “I know it was kind of farfetched thinking. But I was like, ‘Damn, no check.’ Just a letter saying ‘I’m sorry.’”

Read more at the Washington Post.

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Trump keeps his focus on the sideshows – Politico

President Donald Trump was expected to spend the fall pushing his ambitious tax reform agenda and helping devastated regions in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico recover from hurricanes.

Instead, over a period of three weeks, Trump has hammered the NFL into submission over the national anthem protests, repeatedly attacked the “fake news” media and now reopened a fight over his – and his predecessor’s – handling of Gold Star families.

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But these seeming distractions are the president’s substance – and the legislative agenda his predecessors have approached with a singular focus is, for him, largely a diversion.

Since his inauguration in January, Trump’s sideshows have dominated the news coverage of his presidency, with his fellow Republicans often left struggling to understand why he insists on stoking major cultural battles rather than working to advance a traditional legislative agenda. It’s perhaps the fundamental misunderstanding of the Trump presidency — and helps explain the yawning chasm between the president and official Washington.

“His ‘issues’ are a series of episodes where he has a fight with some person who doesn’t want America to be great, like the NFL or Colin Kaepernick, and he wins,” said Bill Kristol, editor-at-large for the Weekly Standard.

While Congressional Republicans have committed to repealing Obamacare, passing tax reform, and moving an infrastructure bill, Trump has staked his presidency on identity and culture – hence his Twitter rebukes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his failure to bring the GOP’s health care bill over the finish line. “I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest,” Trump said earlier this week in the Cabinet Room.

Defense Secretary James Mattis has told associates that Obama hadn’t done enough to honor the sacrifice of Gold Star families, and embarked on a road trip to pay his respects to Gold Star mothers after he retired from the Marine Corps in 2013. It’s unclear whether Mattis relayed his sentiments to the president, and a spokeswoman for the Department of the Defense declined to comment.

The historian Walter Russell Mead traced this impulse to the legacy of President Andrew Jackson. The Jacksonian legacy, Mead wrote in Foreign Affairs, is defined by identity, culture, and patriotism. “Many Jacksonians came to believe that the American establishment was no longer reliably patriotic, with ‘patriotism’ defined as an instinctive loyalty to the well-being and values of Jacksonian America. And they were not wholly wrong, by their lights. Many Americans with cosmopolitan sympathies see their main ethical imperative as working for the betterment of humanity in general.” (Trump hung Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office in January, a move instigated by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon after he read Mead’s piece, according to sources familiar with Bannon’s thinking.)

Fights about the mainstream media, the national anthem, and the treatment of Gold Star families are cultural controversies, which sometimes, but not always, intersects with the Republican party’s policy priorities – say, on immigration or the decertification of the Iran deal.

But Trump is always likely to consider those goals a distraction from his larger cultural agenda.

“He thinks he was elected on this stuff, this is the stuff he knows how to talk about, and this is the stuff that would make the front page of the New York Post,” said Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of National Review. “The problem is, is that the job is still the job.”

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