Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticized President Donald Trump’s recent comments regarding his predecessor’s outreach to the families of fallen soldiers, saying it was ill-advised to point to the experience of his chief of staff John Kelly.
“He’s intensely private about not only his own service but certainly what happened to his son,” Panetta told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl and Rick Klein on the “Powerhouse Politics” podcast. “It’s very regrettable that the president decided to throw him into the argument. It really in a very real way not only hurts I think both John Kelly and his family, but it demeans the presidency.”
Kelly’s son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. On Tuesday, the president pointed to his chief of staff’s own experience when his son died.
“As far as other presidents, I don’t know, you could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from [then-President Barack] Obama? I don’t know what Obama’s policy was,” the president said during a radio interview Tuesday.
“This president has a way of just throwing … names out there in a way to kind of defend what he’s doing, and it’s harmful,” Panetta said. “John Kelly is a patriot. He’s a Marine who put his life on the line and his son is a patriot as well, having given his life.
“I just always felt that John felt very deeply about what had happened with his son, that it was deeply personal, and I just I really hesitate to even begin to comment,” Panetta said of Kelly, who served as his senior military adviser during his time at the Pentagon. “Really knowing John and knowing his family, I really think they would prefer privacy on this issue.”
Panetta, who led the defense department under Obama, said the president’s comments questioning the practices of his predecessors when American soldiers were killed in the line of duty diverts attention from their sacrifice and service.
“When the president made his comment, he made the focus about him, about President Obama and what he did and didn’t do, and I think really distracted from what the country ought to focus on, which is the sacrifices of those individuals and those families.”
The former secretary of defense, who himself interacted with Gold Star families, said Obama wrote letters, made phone calls and visited in person with military families who lost their loved ones.
Panetta argued it’s the sentiment — not the method in which it’s expressed — that’s most important.
“It’s not so much what you do or what you decide to do,” he said. “I think the most important question is whether it comes from the heart, really expresses the compassion and thanks of a grateful nation.”