Wilson, who overheard the call on speakerphone, reported that Trump said Johnson "knew what he signed up for ... but when it happens it hurts anyway". Johnson's family has backed up Wilson's version of events, but Kelly, in a press conference Thursday to try to clarify Trump's statements, also went after Wilson, calling her an "empty barrel".
"There's no flawless way to make that phone call", he said in his first public comments on the controversy over the call, which Johnson's mother and a Florida lawmaker who knew him said was disrespectful.
"I said to him: 'Sir, there is nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families, '" Kelly says he told Trump.
On Thursday, Kelly said Wilson was politicizing a call President Trump made to Gold Star widow Myeshia Johnson, during which the president said her husband, Sgt. Johnson, who was killed during a mission in Niger early this month. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one percent.
"I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing", Kelly said.
Discussing Kelly's remarks, Tapper said the chief of staff spent his time at the podium "deriding politics and the sullying of grief in this whole controversy, but he is just laying rhetorical body blows and insulting, personally, the Congresswoman".
"Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred".
The deaths of US 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. "He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war". 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.
The uproar over Trump and how presidents should or shouldn't try to console families of the fallen has rattled the White House and overshadowed the rest of Trump's agenda in recent days. Johnson's aunt, who raised the soldier from a young age, said the family took that remark to be disrespectful. "All I can do-all I can do is ask my generals", he said.
Further, Wilson claimed that one of Kelly's terms for her - an empty barrel - was "racist", even though she also said she hadn't heard of an empty barrel before. Those calls, he said as he fought back tears, were the most important. Trump later backtracked, saying he was "told" other presidents did not make such calls.
The reporter pressed: Would Kelly respond to reporting on his inaccurate statement? "There were other people who heard what I heard".
Kelly said he explained to Trump beforehand how he had learned about his son's death and what the officer said to him.