The White House on Friday vociferously defended President Trump’s chief of staff after he mischaracterized remarks made by a Democratic congresswoman who criticized Trump’s condolence call to a widow of a fallen U.S. solider.
Facing persistent questions from reporters, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded that John Kelly’s four-decade career in the Marine Corps makes him beyond reproach.
“If you want to go after Gen. Kelly, that’s up to you, but I think if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s something highly inappropriate,” Sanders said.
Kelly criticized Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) on Thursday as an “empty barrel,” accusing her of using a 2015 speech at an FBI building dedication to talk about “how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building.”
Newly released video Friday showed Wilson touted her and other lawmakers’ effort to have the building named after two slain FBI agents, but did not discuss funding. She said the speed with which the bill naming the building became law spoke to her and others’ respect for the agency.
The congresswoman also lauded the fallen agents’ bravery and said that their colleagues face dangers every day on the job. She then asked law enforcement officers in the audience to stand and be recognized.
Friday marked the fourth consecutive day of a battle over Trump’s ability to show sympathy for the families of American soldiers, foiling the White House’s efforts to end the controversy.
The ongoing controversy has also dragged Kelly, who had previously earned respect on both sides of the aisle, into the heated partisan fights that have dogged the Trump administration.
The chief of staff entered the fray when he made a rare appearance in the White House press briefing room on Thursday to push back on criticism of the president’s call with the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger.
Kelly spoke emotionally and personally about the experience of losing a loved one in battle, recalling the advice he received when his son died while serving in Afghanistan.
He defended Trump’s handling of the call and accused Wilson, who revealed its contents after listening in, of politicizing the “sacred” issue of how the nation honors those killed in combat.
But Kelly’s decision to take a swipe at Wilson’s FBI speech generated a fresh controversy, which renewed questions about the White House’s credibility.
“I was not even in Congress in 2009 when the money for the building was secured,” Wilson said Friday on CNN. “So that’s a lie. How dare he.”
Sanders responded by issuing a written statement.
“Gen. Kelly said he was ‘stunned’ that Rep. Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain FBI agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation,” she said.
“As Gen. Kelly pointed out, if you are able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes all about yourself, you are an empty barrel,” she added.
Asked to provide proof Wilson was wrong, Sanders told reporters the congresswoman made “quite a few comments that day” that were not caught on video and that Kelly and others found to be distasteful. She did not cite specific examples.
Sanders was also challenged for lambasting reporters who questioned Kelly, noting Trump’s past criticism of U.S. generals.
“General John Allen, who I never met but spoke against me last night, failed badly in his fight against ISIS. His record = BAD #NeverHillary” Trump tweeted in July 2016 of the four-star Marine Corps general.
That September, he also tweeted he “was never a fan of Colin Powell” because of “his weak understanding of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” which he called a “disaster.”
The White House had hoped Kelly’s Thursday appearance would quell the controversy, believing his military gravitas would help undercut criticism from Wilson and questions from the news media. Aides thought Kelly’s comments would add weight to the president’s denials, which were quickly dismissed by his critics.
But Trump himself fanned the flames by firing off a late-night tweet on 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 20, 2017
Asked why the president felt the need to tweet about the controversy, Sanders laid blame on the media.
“You guys are the ones talking a lot about that story and he felt it was important to address you and all of America directly,” she said.
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