- Press secretary calls reporter’s question ‘highly inappropriate’
- Frederica Wilson says Kelly lied about her during press briefing on Thursday
The White House has been condemned for attempting to silence the media by warning that it is “highly inappropriate” to challenge the veracity of remarks by a military general.
A reporter on Friday questioned a claim by the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired four-star marine general, that the Democratic congresswoman Frederica Wilson had taken credit for securing funding for an FBI building in Florida.
Chip Reid, a CBS News correspondent, said during the daily press briefing: “He was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money was secured before she came into Congress.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, replied coldly: “If you want to go after Gen Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
Reid’s follow-up question was ignored and the implication – from a democratically elected civilian government – that a military general was beyond criticism was troubling to many.
Perry O’Brien, a former army medic who served in Afghanistan, said: “It’s just another example of the administration hiding behind the uniform of others. That’s why it’s so unfortunate to see someone like Gen Kelly enable that and jump on the grenade that Trump threw.”
O’Brien, organising director of Common Defense, a group of veterans against Trump, added: “When you say, ‘How dare you criticise a general?’, how about [former Trump national security adviser] Gen Michael Flynn, who was the first to resign after we learned they were colluding with foreign powers? I don’t think most generals would say a star on your shoulder makes you immune from criticism.”
Kelly appeared at the White House podium on Thursday, to defend Trump against the charge that he caused offence during a call with the widow of Sgt La David Johnson, one of four US soldiers killed in Niger earlier this month by Islamic State fighters. Wilson heard the call and criticised Trump for disrespecting Johnson’s widow, Myeshia.
While defending the president, Kelly – whose son Robert was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 – accused Wilson of “grandstanding” in a 2015 speech by saying she was instrumental in getting funding for an FBI building in Florida and took care of her constituents because she got the money. Wilson denied the charge and video evidence appeared to support her account.
Kelly stood by his accusation, Sanders said on Friday. “Gen Kelly said he was stunned that Representative Wilson made comments at a building dedication honouring 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’re able to make a sacred act like honouring American heroes all about yourself, you’re an ‘empty barrel’. If you don’t understand that reference, I’ll put it a little more simply. As we say in the south: all hat, no cattle.”
Wilson regularly wears a cowboy hat.
Challenged over the video footage of the speech, in which Wilson praises FBI agents, Sanders insisted: “She also had quite a few comments that day that weren’t part of that speech and weren’t part of that video that were also witnessed by many people that were there.”
The press secretary also rejected criticism from Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who supports the accounts of the Trump phone call given by her son’s widow and Wilson.
“Certainly, if the spirit of which those comments were intended were misunderstood, that’s very unfortunate,” Sanders said. “But as the president has said, as Gen Kelly said – who I think has a very deep understanding of what that individual would be going through – his comments were very sympathetic, very respectful. And that was the spirit in which the president intended them. If they were taken any other way, that’s certainly an unfortunate thing.”
According to Wilson, Trump told Johnson’s widow her late husband “knew what he signed up for, but when it happens it hurts anyway”.
Kelly in effect corroborated that account, saying he had counseled Trump on how to make the call by telling him of the morning he was told of his son’s death. Kelly recalled his close friend, Gen Joseph Dunford, telling 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. “That’s what the president tried to say to the four families the other day.”
Trump, however, continues to vehemently deny that he said such words.
“The fake news is going crazy with wacky congresswoman Wilson [Democrat] who was secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content,” he tweeted late on Thursday.
Kelly also suggested Wilson had eavesdropped on a highly sensitive call. The congresswoman, a close friend of the Johnson family, pointed out she was in the car when Myeshia Johnson received the call, which was placed on speakerphone.
“I wasn’t listening in,” she told CNN on Friday. “Please don’t characterize it as that.”
Wilson said Trump’s comments were “not a good message to say to anyone who has lost a child at war”.
“You don’t sign up because you think you’re going to die,” she said. “You sign up to serve your country. There’s nothing to misinterpret. He said what he said. I just don’t agree with it. I just don’t agree with that’s what you should say to grieving families.”
Regarding Kelly’s remarks about the FBI field office speech, Wilson said she had not been a member of Congress in 2009, when the funding mentioned by Kelly was secured. “That’s a lie,” she said of Kelly’s characterization. “How dare he?”
She added: “I feel sorry for Gen Kelly. He has my sympathy for the loss of his son. But he can’t just go on TV and lie on me.”