The White House’s aggressive effort to discredit a congresswoman from Florida who criticized President Trump over a military condolence call ran into a new set of problems Friday when a video emerged showing that the chief of staff had made false claims about her.
It marked the fifth day of a controversy that has raged since Trump attempted to deflect criticism of his handling of the deaths of four service members in an ambush in Niger. The ensuing debate has focused on attacks against Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D) that have proved to be inaccurate but that the White House has refused to back away from, with the latest episode ensnaring Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, a decorated retired Marine general.
The escalating political mud fight has overshadowed the grief of Myeshia Johnson and the heroism of her dead husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, who gave his life for his country.
Trump aides Friday stood by Kelly’s contention that Wilson had boasted about her role in winning funding for a federal building, even after video of her remarks emerged and showed that he was wrong.
In a rare appearance before reporters a day earlier to defend Trump's calls to grieving military families, Kelly suggested that Wilson was like "empty barrels making the most noise" while recalling her appearance at a 2015 event that he attended to christen a new FBI complex in Miami. Wilson has come under heavy criticism from Trump and his supporters for publicly accusing the president of being insensitive in a phone call to Johnson this week, after her husband died in the line of duty two weeks ago.
But video of Wilson's nine-minute speech at the 2015 event, posted by the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, shows that she spoke solely about her efforts to get the building named after two fallen FBI agents, praised the agents for their service and thanked colleagues in Congress from both parties.
Instead of backing down, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders piled on Friday and said Kelly was justified in accusing the lawmaker of grandstanding, despite erring on the facts. “As we say in the South: all hat, no cattle,” Sanders said of Wilson, an African American who is known for wearing brightly colored cowboy hats.
Sanders also attempted to shift the debate away from Kelly’s inaccuracies to instead focus on his personal integrity.
“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate,” she said.
In an interview with Fox Business Network taped Friday, Trump accused Wilson of debasing Kelly by suggesting that the chief of staff had defended the president at Trump’s insistence, in order to keep his job.
“When she made that statement, I thought it was sickening, actually,” Trump said. He added that Kelly is “doing an incredible job” and said the general, who had listened in on his call with Johnson, was “offended” that Wilson would make it public.
“Actually, he said to me: ‘Sir, this is not acceptable. This is really not,’ ” the president said. “Look, I’ve called many people. And I would think that every one of them appreciated it. I was very surprised to see this, to be honest with you.”
Critics said the episode reflects Trump’s continued efforts to avoid scrutiny of his conduct in office by casting blame elsewhere.
The president waited 12 days to comment on the soldiers' deaths before being asked about his silence at a Rose Garden news conference Monday. In defending himself, Trump erroneously accused former presidents of failing to call military families whose loved ones were killed in action. Trump later defended his claim by publicly disclosing that President Barack Obama had not called Kelly after his son, Robert, was killed in Afghanistan.
Trump reportedly did not inform Kelly, who has resisted efforts to politicize his son’s death, that he would make that information public. Kelly and his wife attended a 2011 event at the White House in honor of Gold Star families and were seated at first lady Michelle Obama’s table.
"It made me sad, you know what I mean?" said Amy Siskind, a former Wall Street executive who runs a women's empowerment group and compiles a running public list of the erosion of democratic norms in the Trump era. Kelly is "a good man," Siskind said. "He takes a job [as chief of staff] to prevent World War III, but then he lets Trump use his son, unbeknown to him, to make a political point about Obama. And then he went out and defended him."
Siskind added that Kelly, brought into the White House to help rein in his boss’s worst impulses, had compromised himself in trying to stick up for Trump.
“Kelly created a big asterisk next to his name,” she said. “But how many in the Trump regime have done that?”
Wilson, a longtime family friend who helped mentor La David Johnson in a local program, said she listened to Trump’s conversation via speakerphone while in a car with Johnson’s widow and aunt. The congresswoman told reporters late Tuesday that Trump had told Myeshia Johnson her husband “must have known what he signed up for.” She later said that Trump did not refer to La David Johnson by name and that the conversation left the widow crying and shaken.
Trump lashed out on Twitter the next morning, calling Wilson's account "totally fabricated" and stating that he had "proof." Trump's subsequent revelation that Obama had not called Kelly after his son's death led to Kelly's appearance in the briefing room Thursday.
In the Fox interview, Trump insisted that he did speak La David Johnson’s name in his conversation with his widow.
At the White House, Sanders accused reporters of fanning the flames of a sensational story. “It should have ended yesterday after General Kelly’s comments,” she said. “But it didn’t. . . . It’s still the bulk of the coverage on most every TV you turn on and most every newspaper that you open up today.”
She did not mention that Trump had tweeted again about the issue late Thursday, nearly eight hours after Kelly’s briefing room appearance.
"The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson (D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!" Trump wrote.
In his defense of Trump on Thursday, Kelly accused Wilson of “selfish behavior.” And he asserted that Wilson, at the 2015 FBI building dedication in Miami, had “talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call, he gave the money, the $20 million.”
Wilson denied making such remarks. The Sun-Sentinel video shows that she recounted how she went into “attack mode” to ensure that Congress and Obama expedited a bill to name the building after the two fallen FBI agents in about four weeks.
When initially told that such legislation could take as long as a year, Wilson recalled, "I said — I'm a school principal — and I said, excuse my French, 'Aw, hell no, we're going to get this done.' " She spread credit, offering praise for then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). She also praised the two agents, Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, who were killed in a shootout with bank robbers in 1986 in Miami.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor who served as a special adviser at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, said Trump had erred by engaging in the political fight in the first place.
“Every politically savvy person would have said, ‘You can’t criticize Gold Star families and have anything good come out — so just don’t bother,’ ” Feaver said. “If they criticize you, just take it.”