WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is defending President Donald Trump's chief of staff after the aide mischaracterized remarks of a Democratic congresswoman who has assailed Trump's condolence call to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger.
John Kelly on Thursday derided Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida on Thursday as an "empty barrel," saying she had delivered a speech at an FBI field office dedication in which she "talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building."
Video of the speech obtained by South Florida's Sun-Sentinel shows Wilson never mentioned the building's funding but did recount her efforts to name the building after two special agents who had been killed.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: "If you're able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you're an empty barrel." She also used a dismissive Southwest rancher's term, calling Wilson, who often wears elaborate hats, "all hat and no cattle."
Sanders also suggested that reporters should let the matter drop and should not be challenging Kelly, a retired Marine general.
"If you want to go after General Kelly, if you want to go after a four-star Marine general, that's highly inappropriate," she said.
The fight over Trump's displays of compassion for America's war dead sped ahead Friday, a day after Kelly made an emotional call for an end to politicizing the "sacred" matter of how a nation consoles the families of slain soldiers. Trump himself had called Rep. Wilson "wacky" in a late night tweet.
Kelly, whose son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, criticized Wilson during a dramatic White House appearance Thursday. Wilson 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. Sanders later deemed it "a personal decision" by Kelly to discuss the matter publicly.
"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." Sanders refused to discuss the details of the operation, including whether Trump authorized it, while it was being investigated.
Kelly's 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.
This story has been corrected to correct Kelly's rank to 4-star general, not 3-star.