Late Thursday night, Mr. Trump assailed Ms. Wilson in a tweet, accusing her of listening âSECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!â
Mr. Kelly struck a tone that was more even, if just as powerful. He displayed scorn for a society that he said does not appreciate the sacrifice of those in the military. âMost of you as Americans donât know them,â he said, bemoaning that âthereâs nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate but required.â
A retired Marine general whose son Second Lt. Robert Kelly was slain in battle in 2010, Mr. Kelly has long guarded his personal story of loss even as he served as a high-profile public official. He broke that silence in dramatic fashion on Thursday, offering â from his personal and professional experience â a detailed, even excruciating description of what happens to the remains of those killed in combat, and how the grieving families back home are notified.
âTheir buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud,â Mr. Kelly told an unusually hushed room filled with reporters. âTheyâre packed in ice, typically at the air head, and then theyâre flown to â usually Europe, where theyâre then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that theyâve earned, the emblems of their service.â
He testified to the deep pain that parents feel when they get an early-morning knock on the door from an official to tell them that their son or daughter has been killed in action. âThe casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member,â Mr. Kelly said, his eyes reddening as he spoke.
And he described the moment that he got the knock on his own door: A military official telling him that his son âwas doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,â Mr. Kelly recalled. âHe knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war.â
Mr. Kelly also revealed, apparently for the first time, that he was standing next to Pfc. Chance Phelps, the subject of the HBO movie âTaking Chance,â as the Marine private was killed by hostile fire in Anbar Province in Iraq. The movie, which recounted the return of the Marineâs remains, âis worth seeing,â Mr. Kelly said.
Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, said Mr. Kellyâs blunt remarks will have impact because of the stark contrast with an administration that has repeatedly lost credibility with the public.
âIts great power was you knew he was telling the truth, and in all specifics,â said Ms. Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist. âKelly comes to the podium and it was credible, and you felt a kind of relief, and respect and gratitude.â
The surprise appearance by Mr. Kelly came after Mr. Trump and the White House were defensively consumed by the presidentâs actions this week â first, appearing to criticize former presidents for failing to call the families of fallen service members, and later for the words Mr. Trump chose to use in speaking with Sergeant Johnsonâs widow.
Their conversation was first revealed by Ms. Wilson, who quoted Mr. Trump as saying that Sergeant Johnson âknew what he signed up for.â The congresswoman told reporters that she and the Johnson family were offended by the presidentâs bluntness.
Mr. Kellyâs initial grief on Thursday quickly gave way to an anger that was fueled by what he said was an unfair attack on his boss.
He said Mr. Trump was merely trying to express what Mr. Kelly had discussed with the president before the phone call â that soldiers like Sergeant Johnson were doing what they loved, and what they had chosen to do, when they were killed serving the country.
âThatâs what the president tried to say to four families,â Mr. Kelly said. He later appeared to attack Ms. Wilson by noting that, during an emotional 2015 ceremony, a congresswoman had crassly claimed political credit for getting funding for an F.B.I. building in Miami that was named for fallen agents. Ms. Wilsonâs congressional district includes parts of Miami.
âAnd we were stunned â stunned that sheâd done it,â Mr. Kelly recalled, though he did not name Ms. Wilson. âEven for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.â
Ms. Wilsonâs office declined to respond. The congresswoman also had pushed legislation to quickly name the F.B.I. building.
Mr. Kelly said that Mr. Trump had not intended to suggest during an impromptu White House news conference on Monday that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had not done enough to honor the fallen. Mr. Trumpâs words incensed former Obama administration officials.
Mr. Kelly said that he had advised Mr. Trump that presidents generally do not directly call family members of slain service members, and he confirmed that Mr. Obama had not called him when Lieutenant Kelly was killed â as Mr. Trump had alluded to this week.
âThat was not a criticism; that was just to simply say, âI donât believe President Obama called,ââ Mr. Kelly said. He said that Lieutenant Kellyâs friends in Afghanistan called him in the hours after his son died, and noted that presidents often write condolence letters to grieving military families instead of calling.
âThose are the only phone calls that really mattered,â Mr. Kelly said, his voice cracking. âAnd yeah, the letters count, to a degree. But thereâs not much that really can take the edge off what a family member is going through.â
Mr. Kelly said that he sought refuge during his trip to the national cemetery, surrounded by the gravestones of service members, some of whom âI put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.â Mr. Kelly commanded Marines in Iraq in 2008, one of the bloodiest years of the American-led war there.
But even if he found solace at Arlington National Cemetery, he clearly remained angry on Thursday as he addressed reporters. At one point, he would take questions from anyone who is âa Gold Star parent or sibling.â At another, he described the United States as a place that regularly breaches the sacred trusts that had once underpinned a polite society.
âWhen I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country,â Mr. Kelly said. âWomen were sacred, looked upon with great honor. Thatâs obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, is sacred. Thatâs gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.â
Mr. Kelly did not explain his critique or say whether he was referring to Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who embraced politics by speaking on behalf of Hillary Clinton last year at the Democratic National Convention.
Nor did he acknowledge the irony in his comments. Many people accused Mr. Trump of failing to respect Gold Star families by attacking Mr. Khan. And Mr. Trumpâs behavior toward women in an âAccess Hollywoodâ tape was seen by many as a failure to respect women.
Instead, Mr. Kelly said that he was âsorryâ that most Americans are unfamiliar with the young people who fight in the military on behalf of a country that, in his view, takes them for granted.
âWe donât look down upon those of you who havenât served,â Mr. Kelly said before concluding his remarks. âIn fact, in a way, weâre a little bit sorry because youâll never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our servicemen and women do. Not for any other reason than they love this country.â
âSo just think of that,â he said. âAnd I do appreciate your time.â