ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
White House chief of staff John Kelly says he was stunned and brokenhearted hearing criticism of President Trump's calls to grieving parents this week.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This story started back on Monday, when President Trump was asked why he hadn't said anything about four U.S. soldiers who were killed in Niger on October 4. In his answer, President Trump said he had written letters to the soldiers' families and he planned to call them. And then he said most of his predecessors did not call families of fallen soldiers. That's a claim that aides of former presidents strongly dispute.
SHAPIRO: The pushback and outrage only grew after Trump made one of those calls. Florida Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson says she heard the call to a widow of one of the soldiers killed in Niger. Wilson said Trump told the widow that her husband knew what he signed up for. The president has insisted he was not disrespectful.
M. KELLY: OK, that brings us up to more emotional words today by John Kelly, White House chief of staff, in the White House briefing room. NPR's Geoff Bennett was there. Hey there, Geoff.
GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Hey there.
M. KELLY: Sounds like this was quite a moment in the briefing room today.
BENNETT: It was a moment. And I think chief of staff John Kelly really saw fit to provide some moral leadership on this issue and to also really clarify things from a White House perspective. I think it's important to parse his personal loss. Kelly lost his son, who was serving in Afghanistan in 2010. I think it's important to parse that from his position as the White House chief of staff, a top Trump administration official who was there speaking on behalf of the president.
So he appeared in the White House briefing room. And he started out by saying that most Americans don't know what happens when we lose a member of the armed services. And so he described in great detail the process of what precisely happens to a service member's body as it's prepared for the return trip home. And he explained how the next of kin are informed of the death to include how a president might address the loss.
He said some presidents have elected to place phone calls. He said all presidents, as he understands it, have sent letters. And he said for presidents who do make those phone calls to the families, there's no perfect way to do it. And he said when he took this job and President Trump first asked for his recommendation, Kelly recommended that Trump not do it because there is no good way to make these calls.
And Kelly says that Trump asked him about what previous presidents did. Kelly told him that President Obama did not call him after Kelly lost his son. Kelly said that wasn't a criticism. He said presidents tend not to call when casualty rates are very high. And so Kelly says that when he gave that explanation to President Trump three days ago, Trump elected to make phone calls to the families of the four service members. Take a listen to what else he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN KELLY: And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. Well, let me tell you what I'd tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining the - that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war. And when he died in the four cases we're talking about - Niger, my son's case in Afghanistan - when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That's what the president tried to say to a - to four families the other day.
BENNETT: So hearing John Kelly say that is one thing. But something about the way President Trump apparently relayed that message to Myesha Johnson, the young widow in the early stages of grief, a mother of two children and a third on the way, something about that interaction left her feeling disrespected. That's what Congresswoman Frederica Wilson said publicly. And that account was confirmed by the mother of La David Johnson. So Chief Kelly then said that when he saw Frederica Wilson go public with her account he was dismayed, to put it lightly. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
J. KELLY: I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing - a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There's no reason to enlist. He enlisted.
M. KELLY: All right, that's White House chief of staff John Kelly speaking a short while ago at the White House. Thanks very much, Geoff Bennett, who was there watching from the White House and reporting for us there. Thanks, Geoff.
BENNETT: You're welcome.
M. KELLY: I want to bring one other voice in here to respond. This is NPR's Mara Liasson, who's listening with us here in the studio and about to tell us about what another former president was up to today. But first, Mara, before we get to that, what do you make of John Kelly's remarks today?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, I thought it was an extraordinary moment. He was lending his moral authority, which is considerable especially in this context - being a gold star father - to Donald Trump. He said that when he pointed out to the president that President Obama hadn't called him, he didn't mean it as a criticism. But when Donald Trump brought it up and told a radio interview, well, you should go ask Kelly if Obama called him - of course he knew the answer to that question - it was widely interpreted that he was criticizing President Obama. He was using it as a criticism. And that he was politicizing the death of John Kelly's son.
So today, John Kelly comes to the briefing room, says we should give the president the benefit of the doubt. He didn't mean disrespect. He merely mangled the talking points. And then he did something that Kelly hasn't done before. He waded right into the political controversy, went after the congresswoman hard, didn't mention that the mother had made the same complaints about how she felt disrespected. So this had a lot of layers to it today.
M. KELLY: Yeah, and no sign that this controversy is going to die down. We'll see what...
M. KELLY: ...John Kelly's weighing in will do on that front, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.