After Video Refutes Kelly’s Charges, Congresswoman Raises Issue of Race – New York Times
WASHINGTON — Video of a 2015 speech delivered by Representative Frederica S. Wilson revealed Friday that John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, misrepresented her remarks when he accused her of bragging about securing $20 million for a South Florida F.B.I. building and twisting President Barack Obama’s arm.
Ms. Wilson, in an interview on Friday, called Mr. Kelly a liar and hinted strongly that the altercation, prompted by a call from President Trump to the widow of a fallen black soldier, was racially charged.
“The White House itself is full of white supremacists,” she said.
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Mr. Kelly, escalating a feud between Mr. Trump and Ms. Wilson, had cast the congresswoman on Thursday as a publicity-seeking opportunist. However, the video, released by The Sun Sentinel, a newspaper in South Florida, showed that during her nine-minute speech, Ms. Wilson never took credit for getting the money for the building, only for helping pass legislation naming the building after two fallen federal agents.
She never mentioned pleading with Mr. Obama, and she acknowledged the help of several Republicans, including John A. Boehner, then the House speaker; Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo; and Senator Marco Rubio.
“I feel very sorry for him because he feels such a need to lie on me and I’m not even his enemy,” Ms. Wilson said of Mr. Kelly. “I just can’t even imagine why he would fabricate something like that. That is absolutely insane. I’m just flabbergasted because it’s very easy to trace.”
While she stopped short of accusing Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general, of racial animas, she did say that others in the White House are racially biased.
“They are making themselves look like fools. They have no credibility,” she said. “They are trying to assassinate my character, and they are assassinating their own because everything they say is coming out and shown to be a lie.”
Mr. Trump and his top aides remained defiant Friday in the face of the escalating criticism about the way he and Mr. Kelly have handled the sensitive subject.
After a late-night tweet on Thursday from Mr. Trump in which he called Ms. Wilson “wacky,” aides continued to insist that Mr. Kelly had told the truth when he attacked the congresswoman.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Friday that Mr. Kelly “absolutely” stands by his Thursday remarks.
“General Kelly said he was ‘stunned’ that Representative Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain F.B.I. agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation,” Ms. Sanders said in a statement. “As General Kelly pointed out, if you’re able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”
Ms. Sanders escalated the messaging a few hours later, when she accused reporters of inappropriately criticizing Mr. Kelly and insisted that Ms. Wilson had been grandstanding during her speech in front of the F.B.I. building in 2015.
“As we say in the South: All hat, no cattle,” Ms. Sanders said. Ms. Wilson is known in the Capitol and in South Florida for her colorful hats.
Ms. Sanders also said, “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s highly inappropriate.”
The charges and countercharges on Friday veered into the incendiary issue of race. Ms. Wilson is African-American, as is Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, one of four American soldiers killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus echoed Ms. Wilson’s accusations, though other black lawmakers noted that Mr. Trump attacks people of all races.
Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat and the Virgin Islands’ delegate to Congress, said she was especially offended that Mr. Trump did not seem to know Sergeant Johnson’s name.
“He continually called that fallen soldier ‘your guy’ to his wife. That was his wife,” she said. “It was almost as if he doesn’t believe that we have husbands and wives as black people. And that I find very disturbing, that he would not give her the respect of calling that soldier her husband.”
“I think he challenges anybody who goes after him and corrects him, whether they are black or white or male or female,” she continued. “I think the attack is more stark when it is a woman of color.”
The issue exploded this week when Ms. Wilson went public to say that in a condolence call to Ms. Johnson, Mr. Trump had said that Sergeant Johnson “knew what he signed up for.” Mr. Trump flatly declared that Ms. Wilson’s account was fabricated, but on Thursday, when Mr. Kelly defended the president, he did not refute Ms. Wilson’s account.
Instead, he accused her of turning Sergeant Johnson’s death into a political stunt.
Mr. Kelly said he and the congresswoman were both at the 2015 ceremony for a new F.B.I. building in Miami that was named after Benjamin P. Grogan and Jerry L. Dove, agents who were killed in a 1986 shootout. Mr. Kelly said Ms. Wilson had taken credit for getting the funding for the building. Ms. Wilson’s congressional district includes parts of Miami.
“And we were stunned — stunned that she’d done it,” Mr. Kelly said. “Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”
During the April 2015 dedication ceremony for the building that houses the F.B.I.’s South Florida operations, Ms. Wilson spoke about how quickly she was able to get a bill through the typically slow and bureaucratic Congress.
“It is a miracle to say the least,” Ms. Wilson said of the swift legislative action. But, she said, the quick passage shows how much respect Congress has for the F.B.I.
“Most men and women in law enforcement leave their homes for work knowing that there is a possibility they may not return,” Ms. Wilson said.
A White House spokesman on Friday said it stood by Mr. Kelly’s account of her remarks.
In a Twitter post late on Thursday, Mr. Trump said that Ms. Wilson was “SECRETLY on a very personal call,” and “gave a total lie” about what he had said.
Ms. Wilson, a friend of the Johnson family, was in a limousine with the family waiting at Miami International Airport to meet Sergeant Johnson’s coffin when Mr. Trump called. Ms. Wilson heard the call because it was on a speakerphone.
Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.
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