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.
"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