He Didn’t Even Have His Facts Right

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on October 19, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Oliver Contreras)(Sipa via AP Images)

There was a lot to absorb from John Kelly’s verbal fusillade in the White House press briefing. I would say, a lot to criticize. But one of the oddest and cheapest moments came after he lashed out at Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) over her comments about the President. He then brought up a dedication ceremony for a new FBI field office in Miami that he and Wilson attended in the Spring of 2015.

Here’s what Kelly said

I’ll end with this: 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, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, okay, fine.

What struck me as odd about this is that Wilson would certainly not be the first member of Congress to take credit for bringing money to her district. It’s almost something you expect members of Congress to say. Perhaps you might think it’s off key or a bit tacky. But it’s hardly some kind of outrage or something I think most people would hear and decide she was a terrible person.

But it turns out Kelly didn’t even has his facts right. And he didn’t get them wrong in some trivial way. He did it in a way that significantly changes the substance of what happened. The reporters for The Miami Herald were not able to obtain video or a transcript from the event. But Wilson’s rebuttal seems far more plausible.

Wilson notes that the funding for the federal building was secured before she even got to Congress in 2011. Elected officials embellish all the time. They’ve certainly been known to lie when they can. But it seems implausible that Wilson would stand up and take credit for something that many people in attendance would know on its face was false.

What Wilson did do was sponsor the law, passed and signed by President Obama just before the dedication, which named the building after Grogan and Duke. She drew praise from area Republicans and James Comey, then FBI Director, thanked Wilson for doing so. “Rep. Wilson truly did the impossible, and we are eternally grateful,” said Comey.

Again, this is not a trivial point. Look at Kelly’s comments and he clearly tries to analogize the naming ceremony to the issue of respect for fallen soldiers and other military personnel. The two FBI agents weren’t soldiers. But they died in the line of duty. Their families were there. Children who had barely known their fathers. The clear point of Kelly’s attack was that Wilson stood up and made a crass boast about money in the midst of a commemoration of two fallen heroes. In other words, for all her criticism of President Trump, she’s really a hypocrite. In fact, she’d been responsible for naming the building after them. Big difference.

As I said, the Herald was unable to find video. But it’s a fact the funding predated Wilson’s tenure in Congress. It’s a fact that she sponsored the bill which named the building after these two men. And Comey thanked her for doing so in his speech.

Now, this whole ceremony seems like a pretty garden variety federal building dedication. Dignitaries come to town. The local representative is thanked for her work tied to the building. I can’t say my impression of Wilson would have been changed dramatically if Kelly’s account was accurate. The fact that he seems pretty clearly to have gotten the facts all wrong just solidifies my impression that he went up to that lectern looking to damage Wilson any way he could with at best a pretty flagrant disregard for the facts because he was there to clean up his boss’s mess.

As I’ve written several times in recent days, Trump is poison. I don’t have a clear enough read yet to have a settled opinion of just what he was thinking when he did this. But Kelly shamed himself with this attack. It was ugly and at least far afield of the fact, intentionally or not. Through it all, whatever President Trump was trying to accomplish in that call, whoever coached him, it seems clear that he deeply upset Johnson’s widow and family. Certainly this is a relevant fact Kelly could have taken some note of, even if it was all with the best of intentions on the President’s part. He didn’t. He ignored all that Trump has done over the course of the week. And at the end of the day that is because Trump is poison. Everyone around him gets damaged. Because he is poison they damage themselves.

Dear Reader,

When we asked recently what makes TPM different from other outlets, readers cited factors like honesty, curiosity, transparency, and our vibrant community. They also pointed to our ability to report on important stories and trends long before they are picked up by mainstream outlets; our ability to contextualize information within the arc of history; and our focus on the real-world consequences of the news.

Our unique approach to reporting and presenting the news, however, wouldn’t be possible without our readers’ support. That’s not just marketing speak, it’s true: our work would literally not be possible without readers deciding to become members. Not only does member support account for more than 80% of TPM’s revenue, our members have helped us build an engaged and informed community. Many of our best stories were born from reader tips and valuable member feedback.

We do what other news outlets can’t or won’t do because our members’ support gives us real independence.

If you enjoy reading TPM and value what we do, become a member today.

TPM Staff
Latest Edblog
  • |
    May 28, 2022 11:48 p.m.

    About a decade ago, more or less, I was talking to a quite right wing and very prominent conservative who…

  • |
    May 28, 2022 11:02 a.m.

    From TPM Reader MH … I think you are right about public opinion and guns but for the wrong reason….

  • |
    May 28, 2022 9:50 a.m.

    From TPM Reader DS … I want to share a story with you and then get to a specific point….

Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Investigations Desk:
Director of Audience:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: