CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice had a couple of reasons to be surprised by a recent call he received.
The flip phone he still carries has started to act up, but that’s where he is accustomed to taking calls from those who know him well.
And he was in his own vehicle, stopping off along a drive from Charleston to Lewisburg to check up on some property outside Beckley where his family used to keep bird dogs.
So when the call came over his OnStar system, the governor was caught a little off guard.
“So I answered it, and it’s the president,” Justice said Friday while sitting in a tall, leather chair at the Governor’s Mansion.
President Donald Trump was just in West Virginia on Tuesday for a rally, with Justice at his side. Trump endorsed Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia’s current Attorney General, for U.S. Senate. His administration also just rolled out a new emissions proposal affecting coal-fired power plants.
So Justice thought the call could have been prompted by one of those hot topics.
“But I answered the phone and here’s exactly what he said — he said ‘Big Jim, I’m telling you, you’re the greatest,’ ” Justice recounted Friday afternoon.
“And then the next words out of his mouth was, ‘The only reason I’m calling is I’m checking on Jay. How’s Jay?’ ”
The check-in was unexpected but not out of the blue.
Justice told the entire crowd at Trump’s rally at the Charleston Civic Center how worried he was about his son, James Conley Justice III, who took over the Justice family coal and agriculture operations.
“My son, believe it or not, just ended up with an incredibly close call, a blood clot, at age 37, a guy who runs six miles a day. It would have gone to his lung,” the governor told the crowd of hundreds, not long after taking the stage.
“I would really appreciate your prayers. I just left Johns Hopkins just a second ago and flew.”
Jay’s health scare consumed much of the week for the governor and his family.
Last weekend, Jay Justice developed a bad cough that the family at first thought was a head cold. Soon after that, leg pain emerged as a symptom.
The family is fortunate that Jill Justice, the governor’s daughter, is a physician. She has also taken over operations of The Greenbrier resort and runs the clinic there.
She recommended an ultrasound to check for a blood clot.
The governor, a billionaire but not a doctor, had his doubts about that: “There was no way,” Justice said, citing Jay’s youth and good health habits. “I mean, there’s just no way. But Jill was pretty insistent.”
The ultrasound proved the governor wrong.
“Lo and behold, he’s got a blood clot.”
The initial prognosis seemed manageable though. “It wasn’t something we went to DEFCON 15 about,” Justice said. “But we just felt like it would be a good idea to run him to Johns Hopkins.”
Another way the family is fortunate is they have access to private airplanes. They loaded up and flew to Johns Hopkins, the premiere medical center in Baltimore.
There, further tests revealed the clot had moved into his lungs. He was put on medication, including a blood thinner.
The treatment helped, and Jay was released on Wednesday evening.
“He’s doing fine,” the governor said. “You wouldn’t have known it ever. It was not like he was deathly sick or anything.”
But the governor said his son, still young, might need a blood thinner for the long term.
“Those things are difficult for a 37-year-old to get your arms around because when we’re 37 we think we’re invincible,” Justice said.
The confluence of the family health scare plus the high-profile visit by president consumed the governor’s week.
Justice and his wife, Cathy, flew to Johns Hopkins last Saturday night. The governor flew back to Charleston right before the rally.
Justice was unusually rattled.
He scribbled out his speech on the flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. When he landed, he realized he had forgotten his jacket, so he needed a new outfit to be brought to him. He quickly changed, almost at the last possible second before going on stage.
“I’m thinking ‘Boy, if this isn’t just perfect.’”
Justice, still waiting for a jacket, chatted in the lower level of the Civic Center with the president, who had just received back-to-back bad news, the conviction of former campaign manager Paul Manafort and the plea deal of former counsel Michael Cohen.
“Of course he had a lot of stuff in the news that day about Manafort and Cohen,”Justice said, “and so we talked about a lot of that stuff, just talkin’.”
Justice confided in the president about Jay’s blood clot, just as he confided in the crowd.
Justice made remarks twice to warm up the audience for Trump. The second time, Justice said, “He leans over to me and he says, ‘Listen, as soon as you speak you get the hell out of here and get back to Johns Hopkins,’ and he says ‘Take care of your son.’ ”
That’s what the governor did. He walked off the stage, got with his State Police escort and went straight to the airport. He spent the next day at Johns Hopkins until Jay’s release.
It was Thursday that he received the unexpected followup call from the president.
Justice said he wanted to tell the story to convey a trait that few are able to see.
“He’s brash and he gets himself in a mess a lot of times. He’s Donald Trump,” Justice said. “But I’m telling you the reason so much I love him is I know how much he cares.”
As the conversation over the governor’s OnStar concluded, Trump told Justice to let Jay know he had called. So that’s who the governor called next.
“And I said ‘Jay, I’m sitting out here halfway in the woods and I’m on the OnStar talking to President Trump and he’s calling to check on you,’” Justice said. “Really neat.”