White House chief of staff John Kelly said Thursday that he is dismayed that a Florida congresswoman made public President Donald Trump’s phone call with the widow of a soldier killed in combat, in which the president said the man “must’ve known what he signed up for.”
“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted, at [what] a member of Congress was doing,” Kelly said during a press briefing at the White House, referring to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.). “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. It stuns me. I thought at least that was sacred.”
Wilson has known the slain soldier’s family since he was in elementary school, and mentored him at the time. The Democratic congresswoman was with the widow at the time of the call on Tuesday, and said she heard the conversation on speakerphone.
Kelly called Wilson’s behavior “selfish” and indicated she had eroded the standards of decency in America.
“I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield,” he added. “I just thought that might be sacred.”
The fallen soldier’s mother on Wednesday confirmed that Wilson accurately repeated what the president said.
“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Cowanda Jones-Johnson told The Washington Post.
Trump on Wednesday accused Wilson of fabricating the account of his call with the widow, claiming that he had “proof” to back it up. Yet in his press conference on Thursday, Kelly seemed to support Trump’s reported message to the widow. The former Marine Corps general recounted similar condolences he had received after his son died in Afghanistan.
“He knew what he was getting himself into,” Kelly said, quoting his son’s commanding officer. “It was exactly where he wanted to be. That was the message.”
Trump “expressed his condolences in the best way that he could,” Kelly added.
Kelly also lamented that some parts of society ― including religion, women and Gold Star families ― were no longer considered “sacred” by a majority of Americans.
“I think that left in the convention over [last] summer,” he said, apparently referring to Khizr and Ghazala Khan, two Gold Star parents who criticized Trump at the Democratic National Convention last year.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article indicated Trump had called the fallen soldier’s mother. In fact, he called the soldier’s widow.