WASHINGTON — In heartfelt remarks about his own loss, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former general whose Marine son was killed in Afghanistan, said Thursday he was "stunned" by a Florida lawmaker's criticism of President Donald Trump's condolence call to a fallen soldier's wife.
Kelly described himself as "broken-hearted" coming to work at the White House on Wednesday as he saw Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat, on news networks disclosing the private details of Trump's call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was among four soldiers killed this month in Niger.
"The only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go walk among the finest men and women on this earth" — those buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Kelly said, adding he walked among the graves for an hour and a half.
Wilson's comments, Kelly told reporters during the White House press briefing, violated one of the few "sacred" things the country had left — honoring those who have given their lives in service of the U.S.
Kelly strongly defended Trump, who touched off the controversy on Monday by falsely claiming President Barack Obama had not called the families of fallen soldiers.
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Kelly called Trump "brave" for attempting to make the difficult condolence calls to families who have lost a loved one.
There is "no perfect way to make that phone call," Kelly said, disclosing that when he became chief of staff he had advised Trump not to make condolence calls to the grieving families "because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to."
Kelly, recalling the meaningful calls he and his family received after his son died, said the most important calls are from those in the military who served with their children.
Trump asked Kelly how to make the calls, to which Kelly said he replied that if you have never worn the uniform and have never been in combat "you can’t even imagine how to make that call."
Speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room, Kelly disclosed what he was told when informed that his son, 1st Lt. Robert Michael Kelly, died when he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010.
Kelly recalled that Gen. Joseph Dunford, now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed him of his son's death, telling him that his son "was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed."
"He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent," who serve the nation, Kelly said Dunford told him. "He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war. And when he died … he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends."
Kelly added, "That’s what the president tried to say to the four families the other day."
Kelly's explanation gave additional context to Trump's comments that were so harshly criticized by Wilson, who ripped the president for telling Johnson that her husband "knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt."
A spokesperson for Wilson told NBC News after Kelly's remarks that the congresswoman would not be making any further comment on the issue "because the focus should be on helping a grieving widow and family heal, not on her or Donald Trump."
The president told reporters Tuesday to ask Kelly if Obama had called him after his son was killed. Kelly confirmed Thursday that Obama did not call but the chief of staff made clear he did not intend any criticism of Obama and was only stating a fact.
While taking questions after his comments, Kelly only called on reporters who personally knew Gold Star families.