WASHINGTON — White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said Thursday he was “stunned and broken-hearted” after Rep. Frederica Wilson listened in on a conversation between the widow of a slain U.S. soldier and then criticized President Trump’s attempts to console her.
“There's no perfect way to make that phone call,” said Kelly, who appeared at a regular White House press briefing. “It's not the phone call parents, family members are looking forward to,” he said.
Kelly said the comments Trump made to Army Sgt. La David Johnson's widow, Myeshia Johnson, were similar to those spoken to him after his son was killed in Afghanistan. “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed," Kelly said. "He knew what he was getting into when he joined” the military. “And when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth, his friends,” said Kelly. “That’s what the president tried to say to the four families yesterday.”
Kelly said that the conversation in the aftermath of a military death is one of the only aspects of American life that has not been politicized.
Yet, "it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress,” he said. “I thought at least that was sacred,” he said.
The controversy erupted on Monday after Trump was questioned about why he hadn't responded earlier to the death of four military members in Niger and he responded by noting, inaccurately, that former president Barack Obama didn't call Gold Star families during his presidency.
Trump on Wednesday denied telling the widow of a U.S. soldier killed by Islamic State-linked militants in Niger that her husband knew "what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurts."
Rep. Wilson said she overheard the comment during a conversation on speakerphone Tuesday between Trump and Johnson as they traveled together to meet Johnson's body in Miami.
Trump challenged Wilson's claim in a tweet Wednesday: "Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!"
Kelly's comments Thursday indicate that Wilson did not misquote Trump. Instead, Kelly criticized Wilson for making a political issue out of those comments.