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story.lead_photo.caption At Thursday’s White House briefing, Chief of Staff John Kelly expressed frustration over news accounts about President Donald Trump’s call to the widow of a soldier killed in action.

WASHINGTON -- John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, delivered an emotional defense of President Donald Trump's call this week to the widow of a slain soldier, describing the trauma of learning about his own son's death in Afghanistan and calling the criticism of Trump's call unfair.

Kelly said he was stunned to see the criticism, which came from a Democratic congressman, Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida, after Trump called the widow of one of the soldiers killed in Niger. Kelly said that after hearing Wilson's comments he had to collect his thoughts by going to Arlington National Cemetery for more than an hour.

Wilson had said the president told Johnson's widow that he "knew what he signed up for" and that the family was offended by Trump's words.

From the White House briefing room, Kelly, a retired Marine general whose son 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly was slain in battle in 2010, said he had told the president what he was told when he got the news of Robert's death.

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"He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed," Kelly recalled hearing. "He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we were at war."

"I was stunned when I came to work yesterday, and brokenhearted, when I saw what a member of Congress was doing," he said. "What she was saying, what she was doing on TV. The only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go walk among the finest men or women on this earth."

Kelly, who had long guarded his personal story of loss even as he served as a high-profile public official, broke that silence Thursday. With no advance notice to reporters, Kelly criticized the news media and the broader society for failing to properly respect the fallen.

The appearance came after Trump and the White House were consumed by criticism after the president's actions this week -- first appearing to criticize former presidents for failing to call the families of fallen service members and later for the words Trump chose to use in speaking with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson.

Kelly defended Trump by offering a detailed, even excruciating description of what happens to those killed in combat, including how the remains are packed in ice for the flights back to the United States. He testified to the deep pain that parents feel when they get an early-morning knock on the door from an official there to tell them that their son or daughter has been killed in action.

"The casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member," Kelly said, his eyes reddening as he spoke.

He said presidents often are not among those who call family members directly, and he confirmed what Trump had alluded to publicly on Tuesday: that former President Barack Obama had not called him after Robert Kelly was killed.

"That was not a criticism; that was simply to say I don't believe President Obama called," Kelly said, adding that President George W. Bush and other presidents did not always make personal phone calls to family members. He said Robert Kelly's friends in Afghanistan called him in the hours after his son died.

"Those were the only phone calls that really matter," Kelly said. "Yeah, the letters count to a degree. But there's not much that can take the edge off."

The controversy over Trump's remarks began even before he made the calls to the families, when former Obama administration officials took offense at Trump's suggestion Monday that Obama had not done as much as Trump to pay honor to the fallen.

Kelly said that Trump had not intended to imply that.

Kelly expressed frustration at the fact that the conversation between Trump and Johnson's widow was exposed to the world by Wilson, a friend of the family, who was in the car with the family when the president's call came in.

"I thought at least that was sacred," Kelly said, expressing dismay at other aspects of society that were no longer sacred, including women, religion and Gold Star families.

Trump sparked additional controversy in the Tuesday interview with Fox News Radio in which he was asked whether he'd called the families of Americans killed in Niger nearly two weeks before.

His response -- "You could ask Gen. Kelly. Did he get a call from Obama?" -- irked many in the military for apparently politicizing Kelly's tragedy. Kelly is the most senior U.S. military officer to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"I would be surprised if he comes in and starts allowing people to use his family as a tool," said Charles Krulak, a former Marine Corps commandant who has known John Kelly since the mid-1990s.

There was a sense among some that Trump's words were not an appropriate part of the national political dialogue.

"If there is one sacred ground in politics it should be the ultimate sacrifices made by our military," wrote Chuck Hagel, a defense secretary under Obama and, before that, a Republican U.S. senator.

In an email, Hagel added, "To use General Kelly and his family in this disgusting political way is sickening and beneath every shred of decency of presidential leadership."

Information for this article was contributed by Michael D. Shear of The New York Times and by Laurie Kellman and Robert Burns of The Associated Press.

A Section on 10/20/2017

Print Headline: Son lost to war, Kelly defends call to widow

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  • TimberTopper
    October 20, 2017 at 4:48 a.m.

    What was the Congresswoman to do, step out of the car. Some of what Trump said was what Kelly's friend had stated to him, on the death of his son, but maybe not in the same way as did Kelly's friend. Had Trump just kept his mouth shut on the matter, it wouldn't be such a mess. However in his constant bragging on himself he just had to make the statement.

  • BoudinMan
    October 20, 2017 at 5:52 a.m.

    trump just plain lied when he said to reporters that he did not say "what that congresswoman" said he said. Others in the same car as she confirmed her accounting. Kelly confirmed it in his weird remarks yesterday. What a dumpster fire.

  • RBear
    October 20, 2017 at 6:32 a.m.

    Kelley is really just defending his tone deaf advice to Trump. Now we know where the callous statement came from and it appears to be Kelley. What may have worked for him, a lieutenant general at the time and career military officer, most likely would not work for a grieving young widow who just lost her soulmate. Kelley's defense of Trump is more a defense of his lack of empathy.
    ...
    With regards to this becoming an issue, let's go back to the press conference. It was Trump who created the entire buzz and has cast a critical eye on something that should be private. Because Trump called into question the practices of other presidents and defended his own, we now find out he lied about those statements including those regarding his own practices with Gold Star families. Trump just can't seem to figure out when to shut up.

  • 23cal
    October 20, 2017 at 7:37 a.m.

    "That was not a criticism; that was simply to say I don't believe President Obama called," Kelly said, adding that President George W. Bush and other presidents did not always make personal phone calls to family members."
    None of them lied and claimed to have called ALL of the soldiers who died on their watch. Trump did.
    None of them lied and said other presidents hadn't made calls. Trump did.
    *
    " he had told the president what he was told when he got the news of Robert's death." Told by whom? Some tone deaf president with a tin ear and no empathy or compassion? Who so much lacks those things that they don't know what a lieutenant general versed in warfare needs to hear isn't the same thing a grieving mother or widow needs to hear?
    *
    "former Obama administration officials took offense at Trump's suggestion Monday that Obama had not done as much as Trump to pay honor to the fallen.
    Kelly said that Trump had not intended to imply that."
    Bullshift. That's EXACTLY what Trump intended to imply, and the only reason he brought Obama's name up in connection with it.
    *
    "I thought at least that was sacred," Kelly said, expressing dismay at other aspects of society that were no longer sacred, including women, religion and Gold Star families." Gold star families like the Khan's whom Trump attacked repeatedly? Women whom it is acceptable to grab by the pussy because you're rich? The religion of Muslims?
    Bullshift again. If Kelly thought these things were sacred, he wouldn't be working for someone who regularly and consistently drops his pants and craps all over them.
    *
    "Did he get a call from Obama?" -- irked many in the military for apparently politicizing Kelly's tragedy." As it should. Trump is a crass and classless pig.
    *
    "Hagel added, "To use General Kelly and his family in this disgusting political way is sickening and beneath every shred of decency of presidential leadership." Only to those possessed of decency, some of whom we will be able to determine bereft thereof by their defense of Trump on this issue.

  • RobertBolt
    October 20, 2017 at 8:57 a.m.

    Honorable people who try to help Trump uncover his fundamental humanity merely soil themselves digging a dry hole. Kelly debases himself by evoking his own son's tragic death in order to enable and to defend draft-dodger Trump's obscene disdain for actual courage.

  • PopMom
    October 20, 2017 at 9 a.m.

    23Cal,

    Kelley is working for Trump because it is his duty. He also would worked for Obama and W. Mattis and McMaster are the same. There is nothing good one can say when somebody has lost a child. Trump's inability to be warm and fuzzy is the least of our problems. This is all much ado about nothing. We need to stay focused on healthcare and tax reform and protecting elections from Russian influence.

  • RobertBolt
    October 20, 2017 at 9:12 a.m.

    PopulistMom, tell the gold star mother "this is all much ado about nothing" as you vainly seek to justify your ongoing worship of the cadre of generals who normalize and enable Trump's disgusting behaviors.

  • 23cal
    October 20, 2017 at 9:38 a.m.

    Popmom:
    "Trump's inability to be warm and fuzzy is the least of our problems." His lies and dishonesty in this as in everything else is a major problem, as is his psychological incompetence as illustrated by this incident.
    *
    I get that Trump's fumbling ham-fisted mangled paraphrase of John Kelly's coaching isn't our most pressing problem. However, it does speak to his character and to his psychological problems such as his narcissism which made an appearance via his tin ear and total lack of empathy in this instance.
    *
    Additionally, Trump made a soldier's sacrifice about HIMSELF.
    And that is just about the single most despicable act possible short of going to Arlington and pissing on the graves.
    *
    Allow me to also express my disgust at seeing a GENERAL abase himself as an apologist for an ass of a man that any SOLDIER should spit on in disgust.
    *
    About "There is nothing good one can say when somebody has lost a child." There are things one can say that are bad. Trump achieved that low bar.

  • Jfish
    October 20, 2017 at 9:41 a.m.

    I would say that that on most of these Trump stories, the media is probably right to pursue them about 70 or 80% of the time, but the other 20% are not newsworthy. So on this one Kelly tells Trump what to say and maybe he does not say it perfectly, but he was trying to do the right thing. So some congresswoman who was for some reason on the line, says Trump's statements were said in this context and Kelly says that they were said in this context. As Popmom said, move on.

  • RobertBolt
    October 20, 2017 at 10 a.m.

    Move on? We don't yet have an understanding of the mysterious circumstances of these deaths, and fundamental explanations remain sorely lacking weeks later. Move on? McCain isn't.

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