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John Kelly confirms Trump privately disparaged U.S. service members and veterans

Trump called fallen soldiers "suckers” and "losers" during his presidency, according to a 2020 report in The Atlantic.
Donald Trump and John Kelly attend the Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremonies in New London, Conn.
Donald Trump and John Kelly at the Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremonies in New London, Conn., in May 2017. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

Former Trump White House chief of staff John Kelly is blasting his onetime boss over disparaging remarks he says the then-president repeatedly made about service members and veterans and for what he called Trump's untruthfulness about his positions on various groups as well as on abortion.

In a statement to CNN published Monday, Kelly delivered a scathing criticism of former President Donald Trump while confirming reporting in The Atlantic in 2020 that detailed the comments he made during his presidency.

"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,'" Kelly said of Trump. "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.”

The Atlantic reported that Trump privately made damning statements against U.S. service members and veterans, such as the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who had been a Vietnam prisoner of war, and former President George H.W. Bush, who was shot down as a Navy pilot in World War II. During a visit to France in 2018 for the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, Trump also reportedly called Marines who died at Belleau Wood “suckers” and fallen soldiers at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery “losers.”

Kelly also slammed Trump as someone "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."

He continued, “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,” an apparent reference to Trump's recent statements about Army Gen. Mark Milley, who just retired as the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff. “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 added. “God help us.”

Reached for comment by NBC News, Steven Cheung, Trump campaign spokesperson, 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."

Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, left as Trump's chief of staff in 2018. His tenure had been marred by conflict, with reports at the time describing disagreements between Kelly, Trump and West Wing staff.

Kelly found himself in the crosshairs of his former boss in 2020, when Kelly came to the defense of then-Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who had reported his concerns about Trump’s July 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. During the phone call, Trump asked Zelenskyy to investigate Joe Biden, his son Hunter and Democrats. The phone call led to Trump’s first impeachment by the House, but the Senate later acquitted Trump on two charges, of abusing his power and obstructing Congress.

During Kelly’s time in the Trump White House, speculation grew that he was exhausted and frustrated with his role as well as with Trump’s mercurial temperament.

Kelly first served in the Trump administration as secretary of Homeland Security. Trump appointed him as chief of staff in July 2017 after his predecessor, Reince Priebus, was ousted after six months on the job.