WASHINGTON — He started by describing the reverent handling of America’s war dead, bodies packed in ice and shipped home in the dark to Dover Air Force Base.
From that opening, White House chief of staff John Kelly delivered a raw and searing monologue Thursday about the reality and pain of war sacrifice, praising those who serve and summoning the 2010 death of his own son to defend President Donald Trump against accusations of insensitive outreach to a grieving military family.
In an unannounced appearance at the White House, Kelly, a retired three-star general whose son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, dressed down the Democratic congresswoman who had criticized Trump for comments she said he had made in a condolence call to the pregnant widow of a Green Beret killed in Niger.
Kelly called Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida an “empty barrel” who “makes noise,” but he did not deny the lawmaker’s account of the phone call, as the president had this week. Throughout his remarks, Kelly lamented what he said was lost respect for military service, women, authority and more.
“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” Kelly said. “Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.”
The remarkable scene underscored Kelly’s singular role as an authoritative adviser and now spokesman for a president who is prone to false claims, exaggerations and misstatements. Kelly, who joined the White House to restore internal order, has increasingly become a public figure himself, employed to project calm and reassurance in times of crisis.
The uproar over Trump and how presidents should or shouldn’t try to console families of the fallen has rattled the White House and overshadowed the rest of Trump’s agenda in recent days.
Trump himself attacked Wilson again on Twitter late Thursday, calling her “wacky” and saying she “was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”
Kelly personally absolved Trump of blame in his call to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, a conversation that prompted Wilson to declare that the president had been disrespectful to the grieving family and couldn’t remember Johnson’s name.
“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 he very bravely does make those calls.”
Trump — who has frequently struggled with showing empathy — has emphatically rejected claims that he was disrespectful. But he started the latest controversy this week when he boasted about his commitment to calling service members’ next of kin and brought Kelly into the issue by wondering aloud if President Barack Obama had called the former Marine general after the death of Kelly’s son.
Kelly confirmed Thursday that Obama had not called him, but he made clear “that was not a criticism.”
“That’s not a negative thing,” he said. “I don’t believe all presidents call. I believe they all write.”
In fact, the chief of staff said that when Trump took office, he advised him against making those calls: “I said to him, ‘Sir there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.'”
But Trump wanted to make the calls, and asked Kelly for advice on what to say. In response, Kelly told him what General Joseph Dunford, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him when Robert Kelly was killed. Kelly recalled that Dunford told him his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war.”
And Kelly added that Dunford told him that “when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day.”
Kelly said the Defense Department is investigating the details of the Oct. 4 ambush that killed four American soldiers, including Johnson, in Niger.
Islamic militants on motorcycles brought rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, killing the four and wounding others after shattering the windows of unarmored U.S. trucks. The attack happened in a remote corner of Niger where Americans and local counterparts had been meeting with community leaders.
Kelly said Thursday that small groups of U.S. military personnel are being sent overseas, including to Niger, to help train local people to fight the IS group “so that we don’t have to send large numbers of troops.”
His speech was a rebuke to Wilson, who was in the car with the family of Johnson when Trump called on Tuesday. She said in an interview that Trump had told Johnson’s widow that “you know that this could happen when you signed up for it … but it still hurts.” Johnson’s aunt, who raised the soldier from a young age, said the family took that remark to be disrespectful.
The call came in as they drove to Miami’s airport to receive the body. At the airport, widow Myeshia Johnson leaned in grief across the flag-draped coffin after a military guard received it.
A spokeswoman said Thursday that Wilson stood by her earlier comments. The congresswoman herself, asked by WSVN-TV in Florida about Kelly’s remarks, replied only indirectly.
“Let me tell you what my mother told me when I was little,” Wilson said. “She said, ‘The dog can bark at the moon all night long, but it doesn’t become an issue until the moon barks back.'”
Kelly also accused Wilson of grandstanding at the dedication of a Miami FBI office in 2015.
The White House chief of staff said he was so upset by her criticism of Trump’s call that he went to walk “among the finest men and women on earth” in a 90-minute visit to nearby Arlington National Cemetery, among the graves of service members, including some who died under his command.
Kelly began his remarks by recounting in painstaking detail what happens after a soldier is killed in overseas combat. The dead soldier’s body is wrapped in a makeshift shroud by his colleagues, Kelly said, and then flown by helicopter to a nearby air base, where it is packed in ice. It is then flown to a second base, often in Europe, and put in more ice before it is transported to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The body is then embalmed and dressed in military uniform, complete with medals before heading home.
Kelly said the next of kin are notified by a casualty officer, who “proceeds to break the heart of a family member.”
Robert Kelly, 29, was killed when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan’s remote Helmand province. Kelly said his family got calls from Robert’s friends in Afghanistan attesting to his character. Those calls, he said as he fought back tears, were the most important.
After his dramatic opening statement, Kelly then took questions from reporters, asking first if any of them were Gold Star parents or siblings, meaning relatives of slain service members. When no one raised a hand, Kelly then said he would take questions only from those who knew a Gold Star family.
Kelly, whose frustration with the distractions created by Trump on other subjects led him to deny last week that he was considering quitting, also bemoaned how the nation no longer held things sacred, from life to religion to women. He said the respect given to Gold Star families “left in the convention over the summer,” an apparent reference to the bitter election exchanges between the Trump campaign and a family whose military son had been killed.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman in Washington and David Fischer in Miami contributed reporting.