As part of the White House’s offensive against Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), Chief of Staff John Kelly delivered dramatic remarks to the press yesterday, including an anecdote intended to highlight the Florida Democrat’s pettiness and offensive partisanship.It was a lengthy, 300-word story about the dedication of an FBI field office in Miami, which was being named after two FBI agents who’d been killed in a firefight in the city. As Kelly explained it, Frederica Wilson “stunned” the audience by speaking about how she was “instrumental in getting the funding for that building” from President Obama, when she should’ve shown more dignity at the event.
It was a striking anecdote, which we now know wasn’t true. The Sun-Sentinel published the video today of Wilson’s remarks, and pretty much every relevant detail from Kelly’s story was wrong: she didn’t mention Obama; she didn’t mention the money; and she didn’t take credit for the building. What’s more, the audience didn’t seem at all “stunned” by Wilson, who actually received applause at the end of her remarks.
Kelly’s anecdote may have been powerful, but it was also fictional.
Given the circumstances, I thought it was likely Kelly would apologize. But when a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to comment on the fact that the chief of staff was wrong, she replied:
“If you want to go after Gen. Kelly that’s up to you but I think that that – if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
This followed a White House written statement that stood by Kelly’s remarks, which we now know weren’t true.
Look, there are multiple angles to the broader story here. There’s the deadly attack on four U.S. soldiers in Niger, which Trump still hasn’t mentioned. There’s the president’s self-aggrandizing posturing about how great he is at interacting with fallen soldiers’ loved ones. There’s Trump’s call to Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s loved ones, which clearly didn’t go as intended. There’s even the president’s apparent willingness to politicize an issue that no modern American leader has tried to exploit this way.
But today the White House made the case that John Kelly shouldn’t be questioned for telling a disparaging story about a sitting member of Congress that wasn’t true. To hear the president’s spokesperson tell it, it’s “highly inappropriate” to say Kelly was wrong because Kelly is a retired four-star general.
And while it’s certainly true that Kelly has earned the nation’s gratitude for his service and sacrifices, it’s also true that he’s fallible. He told a story about a congresswoman, and whether he meant to or not, that story has been discredited.
For the White House to suggest the president’s chief of staff shouldn’t be subjected to scrutiny, even after he made a public claim that’s been disproven, is tough to defend.
Postscript: The follow-up question I’d love Sarah Huckabee Sanders to consider is this: if it’s “highly inappropriate” to rebuke U.S. generals, can the White House explain the disparaging remarks Trump has made about U.S. generals?