WHITE HOUSE —
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly defended President Donald Trump's handling of the deaths of U.S. service members, and delivered an intense emotional rebuke to those he accused of politicizing the issue.
Speaking at a White House press briefing Thursday, Kelly said he was "stunned" when U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson accused Trump of being insensitive to the mother of a fallen soldier during a recent phone call.
"It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. It stuns me," said Kelly. The retired four-star Marine general also accused Wilson of exhibiting "selfish behavior" and being an "empty barrel."
Congresswoman Wilson on Tuesday claimed that Trump inappropriately told the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson that he "knew what he signed up for," during a phone call in which Trump offered his sympathy.
Johnson and three other U.S. special forces were killed by Islamic State-linked militants earlier this month in an incident near the Niger-Mali border that has raised questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence.
On Thursday, Kelly said he had advised Trump against making the calls to the fallen soldiers' families, but that the president eventually decided to express his condolences "in the best way that he could."
Kelly recalled the words that U.S. officials told him when his son died: "He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into when he joined that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were when he went to war."
"That's what the president tried to say to the four families the other day," Kelly said, adding there is "no perfect way to make that phone call."
The deaths of U.S. troops is an emotional issue for Kelly, a retired four-star general, whose son was killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010.
"What the hell is my son doing back in the fight?" Kelly asked reporters, lamenting that the death of a U.S. soldier is no longer "sacred."
Trump cites previous presidents
Trump's handling of the deaths of service members became the subject of controversy after he was asked Monday why he had not commented on the deaths of the soldiers killed in Niger.
Trump responded by claiming that most previous presidents, including President Barack Obama, didn't make calls to fallen soldiers’ families, an assertion that is not true.
Trump later suggested that Obama had not called Kelly after his son died in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, Kelly clarified that he told Trump that Obama had not called, but that he did not relay the story as a criticism.
"That was just simply to say I don't believe President Obama called. That's not a negative thing. I don't think [former] President Bush called in all cases," Kelly said.
Not all receive calls
Trump has said he reaches out to all families of those who died in military service, but some relatives of the fallen do not support his claim.
Forty-three service members have been killed since Trump became president in January, according to the Associated Press. Of those families who agreed to speak, about nine said they had contact with the president while nine others said they had not.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Trump promised Chris Baldridge of Zebulon, North Carolina, $25,000 of his own money when they spoke by phone last summer about the death of his son, Army Sergeant Dillon Baldridge, who was killed in Afghanistan.
The check never arrived, but when The Post contacted the White House about the conversation with Baldridge, officials declined to discuss details. The White House, however, issued a statement later saying "the check has been sent."
Other family members anticipated calls from Trump that were never made. The family of Army Sergeant Jonathon Hunter, who was killed in an August suicide bombing in Afghanistan, was told to expect a call from Trump. Mark Hunter, the father, said the call never came.