WATCH: Kelly Denounces Congresswoman's Public Account Of Trump's Call With Widow
Updated at 5:25 p.m. ET
White House chief of staff John Kelly — a retired Marine general whose own son died in Afghanistan — appeared at the White House press briefing on Thursday, attempting to quell the controversy around a phone call President Trump made to a grieving military widow.
"It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation," Kelly said of Rep. Frederica Wilson. The Florida Democrat said she overheard the call on speakerphone while traveling with Myeshia Johnson, the wife of Sgt. La David Johnson who was killed in Niger earlier this month. Wilson criticized the president for telling Johnson that her husband "must have known what he signed up for."
The fallen soldier's mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, also told the Washington Post, "President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband" with comments they perceived as insensitive.
Trump called Wilson's account of the phone call "totally fabricated."
In his remarks in the briefing room, Kelly did not directly challenge what was said on the phone call, but instead took umbrage with Wilson's decision to publicly share the details and criticize the president.
"I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred," Kelly said. "And when I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women" at Arlington Cemetery.
Kelly said that Trump, in talking with Sgt. Johnson's widow, "in his way tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero."
"He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted," Kelly said, explaining Trump's remarks. "There's no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted."
Kelly himself is all too familiar with the somber process that happens when a soldier is lost in battle — both as a commanding officer and as a father. His son Robert, a Marine posthumously promoted to 1st lieutenant, died in Afghanistan in 2010 after stepping on a land mine. Kelly began his remarks by noting that "most Americans don't know what happens when we lose [ a member of the military] in combat. So let me tell you what happens."
Kelly detailed how a soldier is flown back to the U.S. after being killed and how their families are notified by a casualty officer.
"Typically the only phone calls the family receives are the most important phone calls they can imagine, and that is from their buddies. In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really matter," Kelly said. "And yeah, the letters count to a degree, but there's not much that really can take the edge what a family member's going through."
The chief of staff added, "So some presidents have elected to call; all presidents, I believe, have elected to send letters. If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine."
Trump first raised the issue of how past presidents have reached out to console military families at a Rose Garden press conference on Monday. When asked by a reporter why he hadn't commented about the four soldiers who had been ambushed in Niger, Trump said he had written letter but then went on to falsely claim that, "If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls."
Both former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did call and write letters to families, a fact Kelly acknowledged. Kelly said that Obama did not call him when his son was killed — something Kelly underscored wasn't a criticism. Trump had mentioned in an interview with Fox News Radio on Tuesday that Obama had not called Kelly.
"I don't believe President Bush called in all cases," Kelly continued. "I don't believe any president, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very, high, that presidents call. But I believe they all write."
Kelly even said he had counseled Trump not to call the military families while in office because "there's no perfect way to make that phone call" and because "it's not the phone call that parents, family members, are looking forward to."
"If you're not in the family, if you've never worn the uniform, if you've never been in combat, you can't even imagine how to make that call," Kelly said. "I think [Trump] very bravely does make those calls. The call in question that he made ... were to four family members, the four fallen."
Kelly then said he told Trump what his friend Gen. Joseph Dunford, now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him when notifying Kelly that his son had been killed in action.
"[Dunford] said, 'Kell, He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining, that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war. And when he died' — in the four cases we're talking about Niger, in my son's case in Afghanistan – 'when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends,' " Kelly explained. "That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day."