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Donald Trump's chief of staff defends president's call to soldier's widow

Donald Trump's call to the family of Sergeant La David Johnson has sparked controversy Credit: AP

Donald Trump’s chief of staff has defended the president's call to the family of a soldier killed in Niger, which garnered criticism from the soldier's family and a Democratic congresswoman.

General John Kelly said he was "stunned" and "broken hearted" by the criticism, telling reporters at the White House the president had expressed his condolences "in the best way that he could".

The aunt of Sergeant La David Johnson - who was one of four US special service troops killed in Niger by Islamist militants earlier this month - said Trump showed “disrespect” to the soldier’s loved ones as he telephoned them to extend condolences as they drove to a Miami airport to receive his body.

Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson was in the car at the time, and she said Trump had told the widow that “you know that this could happen when you signed up for it ... but it still hurts.”

Sergeant Johnson's mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, said she was in the car at the time and backed up the congresswoman's statement.

The president has rejected claims he was disrespectful.

Kelly accused Frederica Wilson of politicising what he called a "sacred" presidential effort to offer his condolences the grieving family.

General John Kelly's son was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010 Credit: AP

In an emotional appearance in the White House briefing room, Kelly spoke about the death of his own son Robert, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

"It stuns me that a member of Congress listened into that conversation," he said.

"It stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred."

Donald Trump sparked outrage this week when he spoke of his commitment to calling service members' families and brought Kelly into the controversy by wondering aloud if President Barack Obama had called the former Marine general after the death of Kelly's son.

Kelly confirmed that Obama had not called, but he made clear "that's not a criticism."

"That's not a negative thing," he said. "I don't believe all presidents call. I believe they all write."

He revealed that when Trump took office, he urged the president not to make those calls.

Trump has rejected claims his call to Myeshia Johnson was disrespectful Credit: APTN

Frederica Wilson said: "Everyone knows when you go to war you could possibly not come back alive but you don't remind a grieving widow of that. That's so insensitive."

"I wanted to curse him out. I asked the family to give me the phone so that I could, but they wouldn’t.

"It was almost like saying, 'You signed up to do this, and if you didn’t want to die, shouldn’t have signed up.'"