WASHINGTON — He started by describing the reverent handling of America’s war dead, bodies packed in ice and shipped home in the dark to Dover Air Force Base.

From that opening, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly delivered a raw and searing monologue Thursday about the reality and pain of war sacrifice, praising those who serve and summoning the 2010 death of his own son to defend President Trump against accusations of insensitive outreach to a grieving military family.

In an unannounced appearance at the White House, Kelly, a retired three-star general whose son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, dressed down the Democratic congresswoman who criticized Trump for comments she said he made in a condolence call to the pregnant widow of a Green Beret killed in Niger.

Kelly called Rep Frederica Wilson of Florida an “empty barrel” who “makes noise,” but he did not deny the lawmaker’s account of the phone call, as the president had this week.

Throughout his remarks, Kelly lamented what he said was lost respect for military service, women, authority and more.

“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” Kelly said. “Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.”

The remarkable scene underscored Kelly’s singular role as an authoritative adviser and now spokesman for a president who is prone to false claims, exaggerations and misstatements. Kelly, who joined the White House to restore internal order, has increasingly become a public figure himself, employed to project calm and reassurance in times of crisis.

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.

Kelly personally absolved Trump of blame in his call to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, a conversation that prompted Wilson to declare that the president had been disrespectful to the grieving family and couldn’t remember Johnson’s name.

“If you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’ve never been in combat, you can’t even imagine how to make that call,” Kelly said. “I think he very bravely does make those calls.”

Trump – who has frequently struggled with showing empathy – has emphatically rejected claims that he was disrespectful. But he started the latest controversy this week when he boasted about his commitment to calling service members’ next of kin and brought Kelly into the issue by wondering aloud if President Barack Obama called the former Marine general after the death of Kelly’s son.

Kelly confirmed Thursday that Obama had not called him, but he made clear “that was not a criticism.”

“That’s not a negative thing,” he said. “I don’t believe all presidents call. I believe they all write.”

In fact, the chief of staff said that when Trump took office, he advised him against making those calls: “I said to him, ‘Sir there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.’ ”

But Trump wanted to make the calls, and asked Kelly for advice on what to say.

In response, Kelly told him what Gen. Joseph Dunford, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him when Robert Kelly was killed. Kelly recalled that Dunford told him his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war.”

And Kelly added that Dunford told him that “when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day.”

Kelly said that small groups of U.S. military personnel are being sent overseas, including to Niger, to help train local people to fight the IS group “so that we don’t have to send large numbers of troops.”

Wilson, who was in the car with the family of Johnson when Trump called on Tuesday, said in an interview earlier this week that Trump told Johnson’s widow that “you know that this could happen when you signed up for it … but it still hurts.”

Johnson’s aunt, who raised the soldier from a young age, said the family took that remark to be disrespectful.

A spokeswoman said Thursday that Wilson stood by her earlier comments.

Kelly also accused Wilson of grandstanding at the dedication of a Miami FBI office in 2015.

The White House chief of staff said he was so upset by her criticism of Trump’s call that he went to walk “among the finest men and women on earth” in a 90-minute visit to nearby Arlington National Cemetery, among the graves of service members, including some who died under his command.

Robert Kelly, 29, was killed when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan’s remote Helmand province. Kelly said his family got calls from Robert’s friends in Afghanistan attesting to his character. Those calls, he said as he fought back tears, were the most important.