Democratic Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson said this week that one of her constituents—whose husband, Army Sgt. La David Johnson, was recently killed in Niger—was upset that Donald Trump failed to remember Johnson’s name and told her that he “knew what he signed up for” during what was ostensibly a condolence call. Trump has accused Wilson of lying about the conversation (for what it’s worth, Johnson’s mother told the Washington Post that Wilson’s account was accurate), and on Thursday White House chief of staff John Kelly shared a disparaging anecdote about Wilson at a press conference. The story involved Wilson’s allegedly narcissistic behavior at a 2015 event, which Kelly attended, commemorating a new FBI building in Miami:
And a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money—the $20 million—to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.
Kelly added that Wilson’s remarks were particularly off-key because the ceremony was meant to honor two Miami FBI agents, Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Duke, who died in the line of duty in 1986.
The behavior Kelly describes does sound offensive, but there’s a problem: Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper found video of the event, and Wilson’s speech doesn’t involve money at all, let alone mention a specific sum that she personally asked Obama for. In fact, the money for the building had been allocated before Wilson was elected to Congress.
Moreover, Wilson does mention legislation she helped pass—but it was legislation that officially named the building after the two agents who were killed, and she specifically thanks Republicans John Boehner and Marco Rubio for helping push it through quickly. (Former speaker Boehner “went into attack mode” to expedite the bill through the House, she says.) Her comments involve a tribute to the fallen agents that lasts several minutes and concludes thusly: “It is our patriotic duty to lift up Special Agent Benjamin Grogan and Special Agent Jerry Duke … and place their names and picutres high, where the woirld will know that we are proud of their sacrifice.” At one point, Wilson asks anyone in the audience who works in law enforcement or as a first responder to stand to receive a round of applause.
In other words, Kelly’s characterization of Wilson’s remarks was wrong in both letter and spirit; she didn’t talk about money, and while she did mention herself, she did so for seemingly germane reasons while crediting others (including Republicans) and honoring the late FBI agents at length. (At the ceremony, then-FBI director James Comey said Wilson “truly did the impossible” in shepherding the naming legislation and said the FBI was “eternally grateful” for her work.)
The White House’s response to all this is to pretend that that Kelly’s long, detailed accusation was actually so brief and vague that it’s still defensible:
Added Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, at Friday’s press briefing: “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s something highly inappropriate.” In other words, the White House’s position is that very existence of objective reality as captured in the video constitutes messing with the troops.