WASHINGTON -- The White House is defending President Donald Trump's chief of staff after the aide was criticized for mischaracterizing the remarks of a Democratic House member 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 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.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday, "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 Gen. 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 Wilson "wacky" in a late-night tweet.
Kelly, whose son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, criticized Wilson during a White House appearance Thursday. But 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 Gen. 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 that 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 anger 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."
Kelly made clear that he did not hold it against Obama for not calling. And he personally absolved Trump 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.
Wilson 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."
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,'" Kelly said.
But Trump wanted to make the calls, and he asked Kelly for advice on what to say. In response, Kelly told him what Gen. Joseph Dunford, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him when Robert Kelly was killed. Kelly recalled that Dunford told him that 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 used 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 people to fight the Islamic State militant group there "so that we don't have to send large numbers of troops." Sanders refused to discuss the details of the Niger operation, including whether Trump authorized it, while it was being investigated.
Defense Secretary James Mattis met Friday with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, with regard to the operation. McCain on Thursday threatened a subpoena, frustrated with what he said is a slow response to requests for information on the operation from the Trump administration.
Mattis and McCain spoke privately at the lawmaker's Capitol Hill office. Emerging from the meeting, the defense secretary pledged better lines of communication with Congress.
"I felt we were not getting a sufficient amount of information, and we are clearing a lot of that up now," McCain said after the meeting.
Members of the Armed Services Committee will be briefed next week about the attack, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Friday.
Information for this article was contributed by Laurie Kellman, Ken Thomas and David Fischer of The Associated Press.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders arrives Friday with deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley for the daily briefing. Sanders told reporters it was “highly inappropriate” to challenge John Kelly’s remarks about Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., whom Sanders characterized as “all hat and no cattle.”
A Section on 10/21/2017
Print Headline: White House backs Kelly in tiff with House member