A lot of grossness oozes out of Donald Trump’s White House. Yesterday, though, something happened that I’m a bit embarrassed to say left me stunned; I say embarrassed because nothing that the Trump team does should surprise anyone at this point, but they keep finding new ways to lower the bar on integrity and decency. In a snap press conference on Thursday, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly took time out to address the latest controversy that is enveloping his boss — not just the death of four troops in Niger, but Trump’s controversial call to the family of a fallen soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson.
In that press conference, he took direct aim at Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, by recounting the dedication of a new FBI building in her district. Kelly, a retired general, recalled being present for that dedication and used his memory of the event to defame her character and integrity. She spoke at the dedication and he was not pleased. I’ll give background on that in a second, but first, read his words on her.
“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 [Barack] Obama, and on that phone call, he gave the money, the $20 million, to build the building, and she sat down,” Kelly said. “And we were stunned, stunned that she’d done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”
As it turns out, the only honest thing Kelly said in that statement was “and a congresswoman stood up.”
As it turns out, the only honest thing Kelly said in that statement was “and a congresswoman stood up.” Everything else was a breathtaking fabrication that simply never happened. Thankfully — unlike Trump’s call to Johnson’s family — Wilson’s remarks to the FBI were filmed.
Not once did Wilson ever mention getting funding for the building; it was funded years earlier. She never even broaches the subject of money; she never mentions this $20 million line or getting funding from Obama. It never happened. Period. It’s so dishonest that it’s bizarre.
Instead, Wilson, who was thanked by FBI Director James Comey for helping the building be named posthumously after fallen officers, told the comical bipartisan story of how she and then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and so many others rushed to get the naming through Congress in record time, because the ribbon-cutting had already been scheduled. She thanked her colleagues in her congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats, by name. She honored the fallen officers and their families. She honored the FBI agents in the audience, then took her seat.
Wilson was proud. She should’ve been. At a time where Congress gets nothing done, and partisan bickering jams up even routine business, that was put aside and the building was dedicated on time in the honor of the officers. It wasn’t saving the world, but she never made it out to be. Her remarks were witty, beautiful, warm, and gracious. And they were filmed.
The actual speech makes Kelly’s remarks all the more disgusting. That he started off his recollection of Wilson by calling her an “empty barrel” is beyond the pale. Beyond being a member of Congress, she is a hero in her community. She helped mentor Johnson, the soldier who died in Niger, and has done the same with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young people in Florida. She has a doctorate. She was a celebrated school principal. No woman should be called an “empty barrel” — that Kelly used that as his launching point was a gross insult to a woman with a distinguished life of public service.
What Kelly did followed a week in which the trusted words of black women were repeatedly called into question.
Second, Kelly lied. The man did not misunderstand her. He lied – not once but over and over again. He fabricated an entire story about what she told the audience that day. Wilson didn’t brag about raising money or securing funding. It simply never happened. The lies from Kelly were so specific that one must wonder if he, like Trump, is either a serial liar, or if his mental faculties should be called into question.
Or, perhaps, the story he told is a disturbing insight into how his mind works. Consider that Kelly watched Wilson give the remarks she gave in the video. If by some chance he isn’t lying, and he truly believes that’s what he heard, then think about how her speech was transformed by Kelly’s perception of her. He saw her tell, in real life, an amusing story about parliamentary maneuvering to name a building. Yet Kelly heard, in his mind, a story about a money-grubbing, credit-hogging grandstander. And consider that Wilson has been overcoming perceptions like that her entire life.
Kelly was put in the position he is in now, as White House chief of staff, to bring discipline to a team that has none. What he did in lying about Wilson shows that he is not capable of that.
Sadly, though, what Kelly did followed a week in which the trusted words of black women were repeatedly called into question.
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who knew La David Johnson and his family personally, was present for Trump’s call to his widow, Myeshia Johnson. Also present was Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson. Both Wilson and Johnson’s mother confirmed that the call left the family stunned and offended – saying that it appeared Trump not only seemed to have no idea what Johnson’s name was, but that Trump insensitively said that Johnson knew what he was signing up for. Those who were present for the call sad it so incensed the grieving widow that she curled up into a fetal position, crying, in response.
In response to all of this, a decent human being would’ve said something like, “I have no idea the pain this family is going through. If my words compounded their pain, I am truly sorry. Our nation lost a hero and this family lost a loved one. We are all worse for such a loss. If given a chance again, I will communicate this directly to the family so that my words can match the intent of my heart.” I just made that up on the fly. I didn’t think about it. I just thought about what I might say if I happened to either put my foot in my mouth with a grieving family or was perceived to mean something that I didn’t quite mean.
Trump, though, is not a decent human being. He instead decided to pick a fight with three black women — each of them grieving — and soon enlisted his chief of staff to join this fight alongside him. Perhaps it plays well for their base, but what followed, in my opinion, is rooted in a white supremacist understanding of the truthfulness and veracity of black women and black pain.
First, Trump said that Wilson “totally fabricated” her recounting of what Trump said to Johnson’s bereaved family and said that he had “proof” of her fabrication.
Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
The assumption from that was that a recording was made of the call. The White House soon stated that no such recording was made and then basically confirmed that Trump actually said every single word that Wilson stated Trump said, but that he was grossly misunderstood.
To be clear, when a human being says a particular set of words, and someone misunderstands the meaning behind that particular set of words, but actually recounts the set of words correctly, that is not a total fabrication. A total fabrication would be if Wilson stated that Trump said a set of words that he never actually said. In this case, it now appears universally accepted that he absolutely said them.
The next day, speaking to reporters, Trump, arms folded, said defiantly, “I didn’t say what that congresswoman said. I didn’t say it at all. She knows it. And she now is not saying it.”
President Trump: "I didn't say what that congresswoman said. I didn't say it at all. She knows it. And she now is not saying it." pic.twitter.com/uZt1Xjtj9u
— CSPAN (@cspan) October 18, 2017
Except Johnson’s mother, who was there for the call, said Trump absolutely said it. So when Trump says that Wilson is lying, he is also saying that this grieving Gold Star family is lying as well. What’s horrendous is that it took multiple witnesses and video evidence in these cases for many people to believe these black women in the first place.
Why are we even in this position right now? It’s absurd. Wilson and Johnson’s family have not even been given the chance to grieve without their dignity, worth, and honesty being called into question. This follows a long line of the mistreatment of African American veterans and their families in this country – they give their lives in service to this nation – and are then faced with dehumanizing treatment at home.
Correction: October 21, 2017
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., thanked Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., at her April 10, 2015, speech dedicated a new FBI field office. She thanked then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, who was speaker at the time of the dedication.