WASHINGTON — The White House on Friday rushed to defend chief of staff John Kelly after he mischaracterized the remarks of a Democratic congresswoman and called her an “empty barrel” making noise. A Trump spokeswoman said it was “inappropriate” to question Kelly in light of his stature as a retired four-star general.
The administration also insisted it’s long past time to end the political squabbling and insult trading over President Donald Trump’s compassion for America’s war dead, even as it lobbed fresh vilification at Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson.
She kept the barbed exchanges going, adding a new element by suggesting a racial context.
Taking cues from a president who hates to back down, the administration staunchly defended Kelly, who a day before had denounced Wilson’s criticism of Trump — and added his condemnation of past remarks she had made at a Miami event.
Kelly said she delivered a 2015 speech at an FBI field office dedication in which she “talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building,” rather than keeping the focus on the fallen agents for which it was named. Video of the speech contradicted his recollection.
Wilson, in an interview Friday with The New York Times, brought race into the dispute.
“The White House itself is full of white supremacists,” said Wilson, who is black, as is the Florida family Trump had called in a condolence effort this week that led to the back-and-forth name calling.
Trump, in an interview with Fox Business Network, then called Wilson’s criticism of Kelly “sickening.” And, in a comment that seems unlikely to be the last word, he said he actually had had a “very nice call,” with the family of Sgt. La David Johnson.
It all started when Wilson told reporters that Trump had insulted the family of Johnson, who was killed two weeks ago in Niger. She was fabricating that, Trump said. The soldier’s widow and aunt said no, it was the president who was fibbing.
Then Kelly strode out in the White House briefing room on Thursday, backing up the president and suggesting Wilson was just grandstanding — as he said she had at the FBI dedication in 2015.
After news accounts took issue with part of that last accusation, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders chastised reporters Friday for questioning the account of a decorated general.
“If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you,” she said. “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.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and an Air Force veteran, rejected Sanders’ contention that questioning a general was out of line, saying simply, “No, not in America.”
Video of the FBI office dedication in Miami, from the archives of South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, shows that Wilson never mentioned the building’s funding, though she did recount at length her efforts to help name the building in honor of the special agents.
That did nothing to deter Sanders, who said “If you’re able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”
Sanders also used a dismissive Southwest rancher’s term, calling Wilson, who often wears elaborate hats, “all hat and no cattle.”
Wilson was in the car with the family of Johnson, who died in an Oct. 4 ambush that killed four American soldiers in Niger, when Trump called to express his condolences on Tuesday. She said in an interview that Trump had 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.
The Defense Department is investigating the details of the Niger ambush, in which Islamic militants on motorcycles brought rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, killing the four and wounding others. The FBI said it is assisting, as it has in the past when American citizens are killed overseas.
Sanders said Friday that if the “spirit” in which Trump’s comments “were intended were misunderstood, that’s very unfortunate.”
Trump told associates he was furious about what he perceived as unfair media coverage of the phone-call controversy. He posted on Twitter late Thursday: “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!”
Wilson said the family had put his phone call on speakerphone, and stood by her account.
Sanders said Trump chose to tweet about the controversy because it “should have ended yesterday after General Kelly’s comments. But it didn’t. It continued, and it’s still continuing today.”
Kelly, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, was outraged over what he saw as Wilson trying to score political points off a tragedy, according to two White House officials not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Sanders said it was “a personal decision” by Kelly to discuss the matter publicly.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Washington and Terry Spencer in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, contributed reporting.