The White House chief of staff has launched an impassioned attack on a “selfish” congresswoman who said President Trump made a war widow cry.
General John Kelly said he was “broken-hearted” by the Democrat’s criticism of the lawmaker’s condolence call to Sergeant La David Johnson’s wife.
Sergeant Johnson was one of four killed in Niger by Islamist militants this month.
Kelly also said he did not receive a call from President Barack Obama when his son died in Afghanistan in 2010.
The chief of staff, a former Marine Corp general, said in the White House briefing room that Representative Frederica Wilson was “an empty barrel”.
The Florida Democrat said on Wednesday that she had overheard Trump tell bereaved Myeshia Johnson of her slain husband: “He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.”
Wilson said the president’s alleged remarks, shortly before Sergeant Johnson’s coffin arrived by aircraft in his home city of Miami, made Johnson break down in tears.
President Trump said the congresswoman had “totally fabricated” the comments.
On Thursday, Kelly said he was so “stunned” by Wilson’s attack that he spent more than an hour walking among soldiers’ graves at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington.
The chief of staff said he had advised the president not to call the loved ones of the four American servicemen killed in Niger, telling him: “There’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.”
Kelly described such a task as “the most difficult thing you can imagine”.
“There is no perfect way to make that phone call,” he added.
He also discussed the death of his own son, Robert Kelly, a 29-year-old Marine first lieutenant who died when he stepped on an Afghan landmine.
Kelly said: “He [President Trump] asked me about previous presidents. And I said, ‘I can tell you that President Obama, who was my commander-in-chief when I was on active duty, did not call my family.”
“That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say, I don’t believe that President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing.
“I don’t believe President Bush called in all cases. I don’t believe any president, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high, that presidents call.”
The controversy began on Monday when a reporter asked Trump at the White House why he had still not called the families of the four soldiers killed in the fatal ambush in Africa on 4 October.
The president provoked outrage by suggesting that his predecessor, Barack Obama, and other former US presidents did not call the relatives of dead service members.
On Tuesday, Trump ratcheted up the row by stating that President Obama did not call Kelly’s family.