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story.lead_photo.caption Sen. John McCain (left) and Defense Secretary James Mattis discuss their private meeting Friday on Capitol Hill about the U.S. military operation in Niger that left four U.S. soldiers dead.

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.

Photo by AP/ANDREW HARNIK
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

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  • RBear
    October 21, 2017 at 7:08 a.m.

    I know there's been a lot of back and forth about this issue that should have been a private moment, but let's be clear where it started and why it remains in the news. Pres. Trump, in a Rose Garden press conference, brought the issue up when a question about the Niger investigation status was asked. He then started to make broad claims about how he handled Gold Star contacts and falsely attacked the records of prior president for what seems to be no reason at all. Stupid.
    ...
    Then one of the calls was overheard by a congresswoman who was present with the widow and saw her distress after the call. The message of the call was callous and not something you would tell a grieving widow who just lost her soulmate in an attack. Then Trump starts denying the account of the congresswoman, his MO, and the press is trying to get the facts straight. Kelley steps in and defends the president and explains that he gave Trump advice on how to speak to the widow based on his experience. BAD MOVE. Then SHS goes into "my lips are moving, but I'm not saying anything of substance" mode.
    ...
    The bottom line is that Trump should have just kept his mouth shut at the outset. Kelley should have been a little more empathetic with the situation. Based on his demeanor, he's the last person I'd ask for advice on something like that, even if he also lost a son. The congresswoman is putting forth her views after Trump attacked a president she strongly supported. Makes sense to me. The whole thing has spun out of control and will continue to while Trump shows how incompetent he is as president of the nation.
    ...
    Oh and for those worried the nation and press can't walk and chew gum at the same time, Russian investigations continue with Mueller interviewing Sean Spicer this past week. Mueller is now moving into deeper investigation of the White House after laying the foundation of the facts. Yes, the nation can walk and chew gum at the same time despite Trump's bumbling distractions.

  • BoudinMan
    October 21, 2017 at 7:19 a.m.

    trump truly has the anti-Midas touch. Everything he touches withers and dies on the vine. He has now fatally infected Kelly, who seemed to be the "adult" in the room, as was widely reported, but it appears that at trump's behest, has sunk into the mire as a liar as is his boss. Also, the day when we cannot question a politician because he served admirably in the military, is the day we have come to the edge of fascism.

  • PopMom
    October 21, 2017 at 7:20 a.m.

    RBear,

    The ADG simply does not report on the Russian investigation. It is getting deeper and deeper with more evidence of Russian ads on other media and ties to Trump aides. I'm just afraid that it will not go down before XMas. While one can criticize Kelly's demeanor, he is a gold star dad, and the two minutes of tape that I saw had the congresswoman crowing and thanking others about the building as if she were the head honcho. Nobody can deny that she is a big grandstander. NBC and CNN are out of bounds calling him a liar. I agree with Sen Corker's analysis that Kelly, Mattis, and Tillerson are the only people which stand between us and utter chaos. I suspect that Trump is not going to handle the Russian investigation well and that the 25th Amendment will have to be used.

  • PopMom
    October 21, 2017 at 7:24 a.m.

    Boudin,

    I agree that Sanders did not handle it well, and Kelly should not have mentioned the congresswoman. Yet, I feel it likely that anything Trump would have said, the congresswoman would have found offensive.

  • 23cal
    October 21, 2017 at 7:48 a.m.

    "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."
    *
    She went after a liar for lying.
    *
    "John Kelly.....[said].... 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."
    *
    Kelly said she bragged about getting funding. She didn't brag about getting funding. She bragged about her efforts to get it named after fallen FBI agents.
    *
    How can Kelly, Trump, and the right wing ballyhoo nonstop about "honoring the fallen" and then urinate all over the congresswoman for honoring the fallen FBI agents by being instrumental about getting a building named after them?
    *
    What alternate reality is that? Oh, right.....Alternate Facts Reality.
    *
    Being a gold star dad and a general doesn't mean you get to lie about people and not get called on it. I'm calling shenanigans on that idea. You can honor their sacrifice and still call them out for lying when they lie.
    *
    Of course, Trump, who always lies and takes the low road, exacerbated it by lying that he never said "he knew what he signed up for". You expect an emotionally crippled narcissist to lack empathy, but you don't have to expect him to be so stupid as to not understand that could be handled better, and having screwed up, to take some kind of high road and walk away. Instead, he has turned her grief into a shiftstorm.
    *
    At least they are managing to distract from the botched operation itself where the soldier got left behind to die. Where are the screams from the Benghazi bunch? Where is Trey Gowdy and the lynch mob of witch hunters?
    "Gowdy? Gowdy?" (read in Ben Stein's voice as in "Buehler? Buehler?")

  • RBear
    October 21, 2017 at 7:48 a.m.

    PM, several things. You're correct the D-G buries all the info about the Mueller investigation. That's why I rely on WaPo and other sources for information. Regarding the congresswoman, not trying to defend her but she acted like any congressman or woman at a dedication of a building or structure built in their district. If anything, I think you're over-analyzing her speech. She thanked a lot of people and never really took all the credit for herself.
    ...
    Just because Kelley is a Gold Star dad doesn't give him a free pass on this. In fact, I think he started out handling it properly but then has since gone off the rails defending Trump. He lost credibility in my opinion with this attack on the CW. Hes's now caught up in the Trump sh** show which is never a good thing. I agreed at the start the three were the buffer between Trump and total chaos, but the longer this last the more they are getting caught up in his game. It's toxic and hard to escape. This past week was a great example of that point.
    ...
    If anything good has come out of this. Trump is now reaching out more regularly to Gold Star families and recent accounts show he has expressed more empathy. I don't think another family needed to hear what he told that widow. Hopefully Trump learned from the chaos he created.

  • RobertBolt
    October 21, 2017 at 9:15 a.m.

    This is not complicated. The general PopulistMom admittedly worships lied. The Congresswoman didn't. I'll go with the truth teller.

  • 23cal
    October 21, 2017 at 9:36 a.m.

    Does it seem odd to anyone else that Kelly listened in to a "sacred conversation" to which he is castigating the Congresswoman for listening to also?
    I understand he was invited to listen in on one end. She was invited to listen in on the other end.
    I fail to see the difference.

  • JakeTidmore
    October 21, 2017 at 1:14 p.m.

    Trump....trouble doesn't find him. He finds it himself; even seeks it out because he likes trouble. He's the kind of dude who's like a wayward child who'll cross the street to step in a pile of dogsh*t. Trump enjoys trouble.
    He took office as a spoiled, bratty little child and he's still the same rotten little snot we knew last year (and the years before that). In an office that requires a rational adult, the US is now stuck with an irrational child.
    A child who likes playing with the dogsh*t stuck on his shoes.

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