The White House flashed its authoritarian streak again on Friday when press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was “highly inappropriate” for journalists to fact-check a false claim by Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.
Why? Because Kelly is a retired general and therefore should not be questioned.
In a tense exchange, CBS's Chip Reid asked Sanders about Kelly's assertion on Thursday that Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) took credit in a 2015 speech for securing federal funding to build an FBI office in Miami. Video of the speech posted on Friday by the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale shows that Wilson did no such thing but rather praised her Republican colleagues for fast-tracking a bill she sponsored, which named the facility in honor of two FBI agents killed in action.
Sanders said Kelly stands by his claim. Wilson, according to Sanders, “also had quite a few comments that day that weren't part of that speech and weren't part of that video that were also witnessed by many people that were there — what Gen. Kelly referenced yesterday.”
Then came this:
REID: Can he come out here and talk to us about this at some point, so that he can get the facts straight?
SANDERS: I think he's addressed that pretty thoroughly, yesterday.
REID: He was wrong yesterday, in talking about [Wilson] getting the money. The money . . .
SANDERS: If you want to go after Gen. Kelly, that's up to you, but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate.
The remarkable thing about Sanders's combativeness is that it was so unnecessary. Admitting that Kelly was wrong about Wilson's taking credit for the funding of the FBI office would not be a huge concession. Sanders could have said that Kelly simply misspoke — that he meant to say that Wilson patted herself on the back for the speedy passage of a bill that named the building for agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove.
In her speech, Wilson did talk about her determination to see the bill through. Whether she was overly self-congratulatory is a matter of opinion. Most fair-minded observers would probably say she wasn't but, hey, Kelly can say that he felt Wilson was insufficiently gracious, and no one can prove him wrong because it's a judgment call.
What's more, Wilson reinforced Kelly's charge that she is a grandstander when she told WSVN-TV in Miami on Thursday that she is “a rock star now” that she has publicly criticized President Trump's handling of a phone call to a Gold Star family.
Sanders easily could have argued that Kelly's overall point was valid and that in off-the-cuff comments he merely misremembered the details of the bill Wilson touted. Instead, the White House refused to back down, at all, and essentially said to the media, How dare you question us?