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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly delivered a somber but passionate defense Thursday of Donald Trump’s phone call to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, a Miami Gardens resident who was killed during an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.
For nearly 20 minutes, Kelly recalled how difficult it is for presidents to speak with the families of veterans killed in action. He referred to his own son, Second Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, and criticized Rep. Frederica Wilson, the Miami Gardens Democrat who listened in on Trump’s call to Johnson’s family.
Wilson was in the car consoling Johnson’s family as they traveled to Miami International Airport to pick up his casket when Trump called.
“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday, and brokenhearted, when I saw what a member of Congress was doing,” Kelly said. “What she was saying, what she was doing on TV.”
From the White House podium, Kelly launched an emotional attack on Wilson’s decision to criticize Trump for saying that “he knew what he signed up for” in reference to Johnson’s military service.
Kelly said that Trump made a “brave” decision to call the four families whose loved ones died in the Niger ambush and that Trump sought his advice on what to say.
Kelly said he told Trump to say that “soldiers knew what they were doing” when they got into the military.
“I said to him, ‘Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,’” Kelly said.
After reports of Trump’s call, Kelly said he went to Arlington National Cemetery and walked among tombstones of those who had been killed in battle.
Wilson’s office declined to comment on Kelly’s remarks, referring to a Wednesday statement.
“This is personal for me, not political,” Wilson said. “Sgt. Johnson was a member of my community and of the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project that I founded to help boys of color build successful futures. He was killed while on a mission to provide training and security assistance to West African armed forces battling vicious insurgents like Boko Haram, the group whose defeat I’ve been fighting for since it abducted nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls more than three years ago.”
Kelly blasted Wilson without saying her name, just calling her the congresswoman. At one point he called her a “selfish member of Congress.”
“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation,” he said. “I would have thought that was sacred.”
Near the end of his remarks, Kelly recalled visiting Miami in October 2016 for the dedication of the new FBI field office building. The ceremony was dedicated to two agents killed in a 1986 firefight in Miami and attended by families of the victims, survivors and then FBI Director James Comey.
He referred to Wilson as an “empty barrel.”
“A congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there… 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,” Kelly said.
He said Wilson said she called up Obama to get the $20 million for the building.
“We were stunned, stunned that she’d done it,” Kelly said. “Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized.”