WASHINGTON — The fight over President Donald Trump’s displays of compassion for America’s war dead sped ahead Friday, a day after White House chief of staff John Kelly made an emotional call for an end to politicizing the “sacred” matter of how a nation consoles the families of slain soldiers.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is scheduled to hold a briefing at 2 p.m. ET. Watch her remarks in the player above.
Video emerged that undercut part of Kelly’s rebuke of a Florida congresswoman he said had politicized Trump’s condolence call to the pregnant widow of a Green Beret killed in Niger. Trump himself had called Rep. Frederica Wilson “wacky” in a late night tweet.
Kelly, a retired three-star general whose son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, criticized Wilson during a dramatic White House appearance Thursday, deriding her as “an empty barrel” who “makes noise” and who had also been guilty of “grandstanding” at the dedication of an FBI building in Miami in 2015.
The chief of staff recalled being “stunned” that Wilson had bragged about securing funds for the facility during a solemn dedication ceremony. However the congresswoman does not mentions funding during her nine-minute speech, according to a recording reported by The South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Instead, she recounts how she was asked by the FBI four weeks earlier to expedite a bill through Congress to name the building after special agents Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove, who were killed in a 1986 gun battle in Miami. At no point did Wilson, who praised first responders during her speech, take credit for getting funding for the building, which was already approved when she entered Congress in 2011.
The White House did not immediately respond for a request for comment about the discrepancy. Wilson denounced Kelly’s claim and suggested that it was the White House, and not her, that was adding to a grieving family’s anguish.
“You know, I feel sorry for General Kelly,” she told CNN. “He has my sympathy for the loss of his son. But he can’t just go on TV and lie on me.”
Trump, who told associates he was furious about what he perceived as unfair media coverage of the current phone-call controversy, posted on Twitter late Thursday, adding fuel to the political fire he ignited with his comments on the way his predecessors comforted the next of kin.
“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!” the president wrote.
Kelly, who has rarely discussed the 2010 death of his son in public, was taken by surprise when Trump hinted in an interview earlier in the week that President Barack Obama never called to offer Kelly condolences, according to two White House officials not authorized to discuss private conversations. But that was soon eclipsed by the outrage Kelly expressed over what he believed was Wilson trying to score political points off a tragedy, the officials said.
“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” Kelly said in the briefing room Thursday. “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.
Kelly made clear that he did not hold it against Obama for not calling. And he personally absolved Trump — who has frequently struggled showing empathy — of any 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.
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 General 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.”
Kelly said the Defense Department is investigating the details of the Oct. 4 ambush that killed four American soldiers, including Johnson.
Islamic militants on motorcycles brought rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, killing the four and wounding others. The attack happened in a remote corner of Niger where Americans and local counterparts had been meeting with community leaders.
Kelly said Thursday 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.”
His speech was a rebuke to Wilson, who was in the car with the family of Johnson when Trump called 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 call came in as they drove to Miami’s airport to receive the body. At the airport, widow Myeshia Johnson leaned in grief across the flag-draped coffin after a military guard received it.
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.
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman and Ken Thomas in Washington and David Fischer in Miami contributed reporting.