Fact-checking the John Kelly-Frederica Wilson controversy

Last Updated Oct 21, 2017 2:23 PM EDT

The controversy over President Trump's call to the widow of fallen soldier Sgt. La David Johnson has consumed headlines this week, but White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, rather than quelling that controversy, fueled part of it on Thursday.

Mr. Trump was criticized for not calling the families of the four soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger for days, and resorted to suggesting former President Barack Obama didn't call the families of fallen soldiers. He even questioned whether Obama called Kelly when his son died in uniform overseas in 2010. But the controversy took yet another turn after Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, claimed Mr. Trump told widowed Myeshia Johnson her husband "knew what he was getting into."

Kelly says Wilson claimed she secured FBI building funding

On Thursday, Kelly, in a rare and stirring appearance before the White House press corps in the briefing room, said the congresswoman's comments stunned him. He went on to recount a story about Wilson, without specifically naming her, saying she claimed to have secured the funding for an FBI field office in Miami dedicated in 2015. Wilson, on CNN's "New Day Friday, called Kelly's claim a "lie." 

Here is what Kelly said, word-for-word. 

 

In October -- April, rather, of 2015, I was still on active duty, and I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men who were killed in a firefight in Miami against drug traffickers in 1986 -- a guy by the name of Grogan and Duke. Grogan almost retired, 53 years old; Duke, I think less than a year on the job. Anyways, they got in a gunfight and they were killed. Three other FBI agents were there, were wounded, and now retired. So we go down -- Jim Comey gave an absolutely brilliant memorial speech to those fallen men and to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well, and law enforcement so well. 

There were family members there.  Some of the children that were there were three or four years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade. Three of the men that survived the fight were there, and gave a rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives. 

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.

But Kelly's claim is difficult to construe. 

For one thing, Wilson was not in Congress when the FBI secured funding for the building in 2009, a fact which she pointed out during her interview on CNN. Wilson came to Congress in January 2011. Of course, it's still possible Wilson interacted with the White House on plans for the building long before coming to Congress, but Kelly offered nothing to suggest that. The GSA solicited bids for the building that were due September 2010, at which point, the project would have already been fully funded. Wilson wasn't elected until November of that year. 

The Orlando-Sentinel on Friday posted video from the 2015 dedication in which, at least from what the Sun Sentinel claims was the entire speech, Wilson does not mention having had any role in securing funding for the building. 

The White House on Friday "absolutely" stood by Kelly's comments, as White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it. But Sanders also suggested Wilson's comments weren't necessarily on stage, saying Wilson "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."

Even putting that claim aside, Kelly's tone toward Wilson was abrasive. He called it inappropriate for Wilson to listen in on a call with a Gold Star family member and talk about it. 

"I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing," Kelly said during the Thursday briefing. "A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion -- that he's a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted."

Wilson was traveling with Myeisha Johnson in the same car when the president called. For Wilson, being there for Johnson's family was personal. She knew the fallen soldier and had known his family for years. According to the Miami Herald, she mentored Johnson as a part of her signature 5000 Role Models project designed to give educational opportunities for young African-American males. 

"This is very personal for me," she told the Miami Herald.

Trump claims Wilson "fabricated" account of his call

Mr. Trump has said Wilson's account of the story was "fabricated" in the first place.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump took to Twitter to say Wilson "totally fabricated" what he told Myeisha Johnson, adding that he has "proof."

 

That same morning, Mr. Trump again denied Wilson's account.

"Didn't say what that congresswoman said," Mr. Trump told reporters from the White House. "Didn't say it at all. She knows it, and she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said."

The woman who raised the slain soldier confirmed Wilson's description of the conversation, saying the conversation showed "disrespect."

But the president's accusation, that Wilson's version was "totally fabricated," was refuted by Kelly, who recounted to reporters what he advised the president when Mr. Trump asked him how to make the calls. "He said to me, 'What do I say?'" Kelly recalled. The chief of staff told Mr. Trump that there wasn't anything he could do to lighten the burden on the families, and he went on to relate what Gen. Joseph Dunford, his closest friend, told him when his son was killed: "'He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into," Kelly said, "by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war. And when he died -- in the four cases we're talking about, Niger, and my son's case in Afghanistan -- when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends."

And that, Kelly said, was "what the president tried to say to four families the other day." In that phone call, Kelly said, Mr. Trump told Myeisha Johnson that her husband was "a brave man, a fallen hero" and "he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted." 

So, Mr. Trump uttered the words. But apart from the words, the spirit of Mr. Trump's message was been made an issue by someone Kelly felt -- rightly or wrongly -- had no place making the judgment.