WASHINGTON — John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, delivered a searing, personal defense of President Trump’s phone call this week to the widow of a slain Army soldier, describing on Thursday the trauma of learning about his own son’s death in Afghanistan and calling the criticism of Mr. Trump’s condolences unfair.
In a public relations mission that was part emotional catharsis and part political attack, Mr. Kelly lashed out at Representative Frederica S. Wilson, Democrat of Florida, for publicizing the call between Mr. Trump and Myeshia Johnson, whose husband, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, was one of four American soldiers killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.
Mr. Kelly accused Ms. Wilson — who was in a car with Ms. Johnson when Mr. Trump called and is a longtime family friend — of being a publicity-seeking opportunist. He said that the congresswoman’s willingness to breach the confidentiality of Mr. Trump’s words is evidence of a broader decline in the values of an American society that no longer treats women, religion, “life” or Gold Star families as sacred.
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“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation — absolutely stuns me,” Mr. Kelly said during a somber, 18-minute appearance in the White House briefing room. He said that he was so upset by Ms. Wilson’s appearances on TV news shows that he had to collect his thoughts by walking through the graves at Arlington National Cemetery for more than an hour.
Late Thursday night, Mr. Trump assailed Ms. Wilson in a tweet, accusing her of listening “SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”
Mr. Kelly struck a tone that was more even, if just as powerful. He displayed scorn for a society that he said does not appreciate the sacrifice of those in the military. “Most of you as Americans don’t know them,” he said, bemoaning that “there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate but required.”
A retired Marine general whose son Second Lt. Robert Kelly was slain in battle in 2010, Mr. Kelly has long guarded his personal story of loss even as he served as a high-profile public official. He broke that silence in dramatic fashion on Thursday, offering — from his personal and professional experience — a detailed, even excruciating description of what happens to the remains of those killed in combat, and how the grieving families back home are notified.
“Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud,” Mr. Kelly told an unusually hushed room filled with reporters. “They’re packed in ice, typically at the air head, and then they’re flown to — usually Europe, where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service.”
He testified to the deep pain that parents feel when they get an early-morning knock on the door from an official to tell them that their son or daughter has been killed in action. “The casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member,” Mr. Kelly said, his eyes reddening as he spoke.
And he described the moment that he got the knock on his own door: A military official telling him that his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,” Mr. Kelly recalled. “He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war.”
Mr. Kelly also revealed, apparently for the first time, that he was standing next to Pfc. Chance Phelps, the subject of the HBO movie “Taking Chance,” as the Marine private was killed by hostile fire in Anbar Province in Iraq. The movie, which recounted the return of the Marine’s remains, “is worth seeing,” Mr. Kelly said.
Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, said Mr. Kelly’s blunt remarks will have impact because of the stark contrast with an administration that has repeatedly lost credibility with the public.
“Its great power was you knew he was telling the truth, and in all specifics,” said Ms. Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist. “Kelly comes to the podium and it was credible, and you felt a kind of relief, and respect and gratitude.”
The surprise appearance by Mr. Kelly came after Mr. Trump and the White House were defensively consumed by the president’s actions this week — first, appearing to criticize former presidents for failing to call the families of fallen service members, and later for the words Mr. Trump chose to use in speaking with Sergeant Johnson’s widow.
Their conversation was first revealed by Ms. Wilson, who quoted Mr. Trump as saying that Sergeant Johnson “knew what he signed up for.” The congresswoman told reporters that she and the Johnson family were offended by the president’s bluntness.
Mr. Kelly’s initial grief on Thursday quickly gave way to an anger that was fueled by what he said was an unfair attack on his boss.
He said Mr. Trump was merely trying to express what Mr. Kelly had discussed with the president before the phone call — that soldiers like Sergeant Johnson were doing what they loved, and what they had chosen to do, when they were killed serving the country.
“That’s what the president tried to say to four families,” Mr. Kelly said. He later appeared to attack Ms. Wilson by noting that, during an emotional 2015 ceremony, a congresswoman had crassly claimed political credit for getting funding for an F.B.I. building in Miami that was named for fallen agents. Ms. Wilson’s congressional district includes parts of Miami.
“And we were stunned — stunned that she’d done it,” Mr. Kelly recalled, though he did not name Ms. Wilson. “Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”
Ms. Wilson’s office declined to respond. The congresswoman also had pushed legislation to quickly name the F.B.I. building.
Mr. Kelly said that Mr. Trump had not intended to suggest during an impromptu White House news conference on Monday that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had not done enough to honor the fallen. Mr. Trump’s words incensed former Obama administration officials.
Mr. Kelly said that he had advised Mr. Trump that presidents generally do not directly call family members of slain service members, and he confirmed that Mr. Obama had not called him when Lieutenant Kelly was killed — as Mr. Trump had alluded to this week.
“That was not a criticism; that was just to simply say, ‘I don’t believe President Obama called,’” Mr. Kelly said. He said that Lieutenant Kelly’s friends in Afghanistan called him in the hours after his son died, and noted that presidents often write condolence letters to grieving military families instead of calling.
“Those are the only phone calls that really mattered,” Mr. Kelly said, his voice cracking. “And yeah, the letters count, to a degree. But there’s not much that really can take the edge off what a family member is going through.”
Mr. Kelly said that he sought refuge during his trip to the national cemetery, surrounded by the gravestones of service members, some of whom “I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.” Mr. Kelly commanded Marines in Iraq in 2008, one of the bloodiest years of the American-led war there.
But even if he found solace at Arlington National Cemetery, he clearly remained angry on Thursday as he addressed reporters. At one point, he would take questions from anyone who is “a Gold Star parent or sibling.” At another, he described the United States as a place that regularly breaches the sacred trusts that had once underpinned a polite society.
“When I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country,” Mr. Kelly 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, is 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.”
Mr. Kelly did not explain his critique or say whether he was referring to Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who embraced politics by speaking on behalf of Hillary Clinton last year at the Democratic National Convention.
Nor did he acknowledge the irony in his comments. Many people accused Mr. Trump of failing to respect Gold Star families by attacking Mr. Khan. And Mr. Trump’s behavior toward women in an “Access Hollywood” tape was seen by many as a failure to respect women.
Instead, Mr. Kelly said that he was “sorry” that most Americans are unfamiliar with the young people who fight in the military on behalf of a country that, in his view, takes them for granted.
“We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served,” Mr. Kelly said before concluding his remarks. “In fact, in a way, we’re a little bit sorry because you’ll never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our servicemen and women do. Not for any other reason than they love this country.”
“So just think of that,” he said. “And I do appreciate your time.”