FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump’s chief of staff distorted the facts when he accused a “selfish” Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson of grandstanding at a building dedication in the memory of two slain FBI agents in 2015.
John Kelly said she stunned the audience at the somber ceremony by recounting how she had been the driving force behind raising money for the building, the FBI’s South Florida headquarters. But a video of her remarks at the dedication shows she never took credit for getting the government to come up with the money for the project. Indeed, the building was approved several years before she entered Congress.
The long-ago episode has become caught up in a swirl of recriminations, sparked days ago when Trump made an empty boast that he surpassed previous presidents in reaching out to families of the fallen. One such outreach backfired, leaving a family feeling that their late son, Sgt. La David Johnson, was disrespected by Trump in a phone conversation with his widow, according to the aunt who raised him.
In addition, both Trump and Kelly implied nefarious motives by Wilson in listening to that call — “SECRETLY,” as Trump put it in a tweet. Trump called while Wilson was in the car with the widow — a friend — and other family members, and the call was put on speakerphone.
In that circumstance, the limo driver listened in, too — there was no escaping it.
On Thursday, flush with fury, Kelly spoke about the building dedication and more as he challenged Wilson’s criticisms of Trump’s behavior on the phone with Myeshia Johnson. Her husband was one of U.S. four soldiers killed in Niger early this month.
A look at Kelly’s comments and Trump’s tweet:
KELLY: “And a congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in 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’d done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”
THE FACTS: Kelly’s recollection is incorrect. In her nine-minute speech at the April 10, 2015, dedication ceremony, a video of which was found by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Wilson never mentions the building’s financing.
She did, though, spend up to three minutes talking about an effort she did lead — to have the building named after the special agents, Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove, who were killed in a 1986 gun battle in Miami. She recounted how she was asked by the FBI four weeks earlier to expedite a bill through Congress to name the building after Grogan and Dove. She said the process normally takes eight months to a year.
“I went into attack mode,” she told the audience. She said she approached then-Speaker John Boehner, telling him “the FBI needs your help and our country needs your help.” She said Boehner got the bill to the House floor for a vote in two days. She said she then rushed the bill to Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, who got the bill passed by that chamber two days later. President Barack Obama signed the bill three days before the dedication ceremony. The audience responded with loud applause.
“It’s a miracle but it speaks to the respect that our Congress has for the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” she said.
She then asked all first responders to stand so they could receive applause.
Wilson then recited the biographies of agents Grogan and Dove and detailed the gun battle in which they were killed and five other agents wounded.
After the video emerged, the White House tried to amend Kelly’s complaint. Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Kelly was stunned that the Democratic congresswoman talked about “her own actions in Congress” at the event, glossing over Kelly’s erroneous claim that Wilson had bragged about raising the money.
KELLY: “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.”
TRUMP: “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 FACTS: Kelly also listened in on what Trump called a “very personal call.” So did other people in the White House. “There were several people in the room from the administration that were on the call, including the chief of staff, General John Kelly,” Sanders confirmed this week.
At the other end, Trump’s call came when the family was in a limousine at or en route to Miami International Airport to meet Johnson’s casket. The slain soldier’s aunt and uncle, Richard Johnson and Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who raised him as parents, were in the car. So was Johnson’s wife and the Democratic congresswoman.
Wilson knew Sgt. Johnson as a member of her 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, founded to help minority boys find success in life.
She said in TV interviews she wasn’t secretly listening in — everyone in the car heard — and in fact wanted to get on the call and “curse him out” but was not given the phone.
A president’s phone calls to bereaved military families are generally not made public, but that’s not to say anyone is sworn to secrecy.
Natasha De Alencar, widow of Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, released video of her conversation with Trump, which she found comforting.
The video has been playing on CNN and the White House has not complained publicly.