Updated at 7 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.
Kelly defended Trump's call to Myeshia Johnson, whose husband was killed along with three other U.S. soldiers in Niger on Oct. 4, and pushed back on criticism that has grown over the course of the week — beginning with a question about why Trump had not responded to the deaths sooner.
Trump called Johnson, the wife of Sgt. La David Johnson, on Tuesday. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., was traveling with Johnson at the time and heard the call over speakerphone. In multiple interviews, 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 the briefing room on Thursday, Kelly did not directly challenge what was said on the phone call, which he was in the room for. He instead took umbrage at 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 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 the 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 off 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 letters 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 said. "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."
Kelly also bemoaned the politicization of many things that he said used to be off-limits.
"You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country," he said. "Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer."
Kelly appeared to be alluding to the sexual assault scandal around Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Trump was accused of sexual assault and harassment by many women during the campaign, which he has denied, and was also caught on tape using vulgar language about groping and kissing women.
Gold Star father Khizr Khan criticized then-GOP presidential nominee Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. In response, Trump questioned why Khan's wife, who stood next to him, did not also address the convention. "Maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say, you tell me," Trump said in an interview.
Khan, in an interview recorded before Kelly's briefing, said that "every word" was wrong with Trump's remarks to Johnson's widow.
"He does not have the capacity to understand what it takes to serve this nation in harm's way," Khan said of the president, who had multiple deferments from the Vietnam draft. "These men and women went — he, by default, he is their commander in chief, these are his sons and daughters. How dare he disrespect, how dare he utters a word of disrespect, indignity. There should be empathy, there should be support, there should be dignity of not only their sacrifice, but their family's sacrifice."
Kelly did take a few questions from reporters, but he specified he would call on ones who were a Gold Star parent or sibling or who knew a Gold Star family.
The chief of staff was pressed on the investigation into the Niger attacks, which he said was ongoing. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said earlier on Thursday that the military was still gathering information about the Oct. 4 shooting that killed the four soldiers and wounded two others.
"We, in the Department of Defense, like to know what we are talking about before we talk and so we do not have all the accurate information yet," Mattis said. "We will release it as rapidly as we get it."
The defense secretary did offer some details on how French forces intervened after the Americans came under fire.
"The French response included armed fighter aircraft, armed helicopter gunships, a medevac [helicopter] that lifted out our wounded," Mattis told reporters.
About a dozen Americans had just finished meeting with villagers in a remote part of Niger when they were ambushed by a much larger force. The Americans are in Niger to train and assist the military but are not part of a combat mission.
NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre contributed to this report.
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