Politics

White House Shifts Stance on Kelly Criticism of Wilson

Press secretary: 'Many people' heard 2015 remarks not captured on video

Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., admires the high school projects hanging in the Cannon House Office Building tunnel. She is locked in a feud with President Donald Trump and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly that she says has turned  “personal.“  (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House shifted its stance again Friday in its latest feud, this one with a Florida Democratic congresswoman stemming from her criticism of President Donald Trump’s words to a military widow.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Thursday sharply criticized Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, who says she overheard a Tuesday call from Trump to the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed in an ambush in Niger. Wilson and Johnson family members contend Trump said the late soldier “knew what he signed up for.”

Trump on Wednesday accused Wilson of lying, though Kelly and other senior aides later walked that back. Kelly explained he had told Trump that now-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford had said the same to him when informing him of his own Marine son’s death in Afghanistan in 2010. That was shift No. 1.

In a remarkable scene, Kelly appeared in the briefing room Thursday to say he was “stunned” Wilson had listened in on the call, which Johnson’s family has confirmed was taken over their car’s sound system en route to the Miami airport for the return of Sgt. Johnson’s body.

He went on to imply — without using her name — that Wilson in 2015 had bragged openly during the dedication of a new FBI building in Miami about personally securing the funds for the new facility. Kelly let his disgust with those alleged comments show during Thursday, blasting the unnamed congresswoman for boasting about her role in front of family members of fallen FBI agents for whom the field office was named.

“And a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that, and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building,” Kelly said.

“And how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President [Barack] Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building,” the retired Marine Corps general told reporters. “And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”

But a video of Wilson’s remarks at that 2015 ceremony that surfaced after Kelly’s passionate briefing does not show her talking about funding for the building.

That prompted shift No. 2.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday first contended that Wilson had boasted about “herself” and legislation related to the Miami field office.

Under questioning at Friday’s briefing, Sanders contended that “many people” witnessed other comments not in the video by the congresswoman that day in Miami in which she bragged about getting the monies from Obama.

She did not describe just who those alleged “many people” might be.

Sanders also counseled reporters that it would be inappropriate for them to “go after” Kelly. Why? Because he is a retired four-star general, she said.

Sanders also did not explain why a White House chief of staff should not be subject to scrutiny or his/her words questioned when new evidence appears just because they once wore four stars on their shoulders.

Senior American military officers routinely take questions from reporters, even hosting embedded journalists in war zones.

Wilson defended herself Friday morning on CNN, saying of Kelly: “He can’t just go on TV and lie on me.”

Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that Wilson had “totally fabricated” his words to Johnson, and later added this when reporters asked him about the flap: “I didn’t say what that congresswoman said, didn’t say it at all, she knows it.” He said he would like Wilson to clarify her statement.

But the clarifications have been coming largely from the White House. 

RFK Stadium’s Next Phase: To Revitalize Capitol Hill Icon, Congress Must Act

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.