A video released Friday shows White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was incorrect when he accused a Democratic congresswoman from Miami of bragging about securing money for her district during a 2015 ceremony devoted to a pair of slain FBI agents.
The video of the April 15, 2015, remarks by Rep. Frederica Wilson shows she praised the agents at the center of the dedication ceremony for the new FBI field office in Miramar. And while she touted her role in passing a bill to name the building after agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove during a broader tribute to the two men, the video posted Friday by the South Florida Sun Sentinel shows she never took credit for the tax dollars that went into the project — as Kelly had stated Thursday in the White House briefing room, calling her an “empty barrel” making noise amid a solemn ceremony for the heroes.
Faced with proof that Kelly gave an inaccurate version of Wilson’s 2015 speech, the White House stuck with the original attack against the four-term congresswoman. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement with a new take on Kelly’s critique, saying Wilson shouldn’t have made the naming ceremony “about her.”
“Gen. Kelly said he was ‘stunned’ that Rep. Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain FBI agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former president Obama on legislation,” Huckabee Sanders said. “As Gen. Kelly pointed out, if you’re able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”
She did not correct Kelly’s prior statements about watching Wilson as she “stood up there” at the 2015 event and talked about “how she took care of her constituents because she got the money.” The video showed Wilson never mentioned “money” or “constituents” in her remarks; Washington had already approved the funding for the $194 million complex in Miramar by time Wilson was first elected to Congress in 2010.
During a press briefing Friday, Sanders claimed Kelly had been referring to comments Wilson made off-camera, but gave no proof and brushed off a reporter’s request that the chief of staff answer questions about his statements Thursday. Sanders cautioned a reporter against questioning Kelly on the issue.
“I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general I think that’s something highly inappropriate,” Huckabee Sanders said. “There was a lot of grandstanding. He [Kelly] was stunned that she [Wilson] had taken that opportunity to make it about herself.”
The footage posted by the Sun Sentinel begins mid-sentence for Wilson, who is recognizing fellow members of Congress in the audience. In her remarks, Wilson did describe passing her bill so quickly “a miracle, to say the least,” thanks to her and colleagues being in “attack mode.” But she also spent significant time praising the agents who Kelly said on Thursday had deserved the attention that day.
“Today it is is our patriotic duty to lift up Special Agent Benjamin Grogan and Special Agent Jerry Dove from the streets of South Florida and place their names and pictures high where the world will know that we are proud of their sacrifice, sacrifice for our nation,” she said in the video.
“It is only fitting that their names should be placed on the same mantle with the letters FBI. Because Special Agent Grogan and Dove embody the sacred motto of which the agency has become known. Please repeat it after me: Fidelity. Bravery. And integrity.
“God bless you,” she said at the close, drawing a standing ovation. “God bless the FBI. And God bless America.”
Miramar mayor Wayne Messam, who also spoke at the 2015 FBI dedication ceremony, said Friday that Wilson did not engage in any grandstanding either on or off camera.
“I heard no one give any suggestion that she was grandstanding or even made it about herself,” Messam said. “The thought never even came across my mind until all of this discussion.”
Messam said that the most memorable part of the event was excitement and pride of the retired FBI agents on hand who survived the 1986 shootout south of Miami.
“It was all about their surviving members who were there,” Messam said.
Kelly launched a highly specific attack on Wilson without mentioning her by name during a 20-minute speech at the White House on Thursday, accusing the Miami Gardens Democrat of politicizing the death of a soldier and taking undue credit for the FBI building during a solemn ceremony.
“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,” Kelly told reporters.
Wilson told the Miami Herald on Thursday that Kelly was lying.
“He shouldn’t be able to just say that. That is terrible,” Wilson said. “This has become totally personal.”
The video posted Friday backs up Wilson’s remarks that came after days of back-and-forth between the Miami-area congresswoman and President Donald Trump. Trump accused Wilson of misrepresenting a call to the family for Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed during an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.
Wilson was in the car with Johnson’s family when Trump called and said it was insensitive for the president to say that “he knew what he signed up for … but when it happens it hurts anyway” to Johnson’s family.
“I think it’s so insensitive. It’s crazy. Why do you need to say that?’’ Wilson told the Herald. “You don’t say that to someone who lost family, the father, the breadwinner. You can say, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss. He’s a hero.’”
The Herald first reported Kelly’s flawed rendition of Wilson’s remarks at the 2015 dedication of the new federal building in Miramar, in Broward County. The White House issued a statement Thursday night saying it stood by Kelly’s version of the event. After the Herald story published, Trump tweeted a statement accusing the “Fake News” of “going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”
About thirty minutes later, at 11:25 p.m., White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted: “Thank God we have patriots like General John Kelly serving our country.”
Wilson wants Congress and the White House to find out why it took 48 hours for Johnson’s body to be located after the ambush.
“Why do you think they [the White House] are continuing all of this?” Wilson said. “Think about what they should be doing. They should be trying to find out why Sgt. La David Johnson was separated from his battalion for two days.”
Herald staff writer Howard Cohen contributed to this story.
WILSON ON VIDEO
What follows is a full transcript of the Sun-Sentinel video. The video does not capture Wilson’s full speech; it appears to begin shortly after she began speaking at the new FBI building. The transcript:
... to acknowledge my colleagues in Congress, and I want them to stand. I will call their names. Ladies first. Congressman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was a fighter and a champion. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who is always advocating for the issues that affect our community. Congressman Carlos Curbelo, who is new to the Congress but is blazing his own great trail. And they all helped move this. I always want to take a moment again to recognize the family of Special Agent Grogan, who are here with us, and the family of Special Agent Dove, wherever they might be. We have the honor of having FBI Director James Comey with us. He has the enormous task of keeping all Americans safe.
I've seen him so many times, but he looks taller today. We're also happy to have there the GSA Administrator, Denise Roth, here. We're fortunate to have a great local leader as the head of the Miami field office, Special Agent in Charge George Piro. I also want to acknowledge our mayor.
Consider this scenario: The brand new federal building housing the FBI has been built. And the FBI approaches my office. Congresswoman Wilson: The ribbon cutting has been scheduled in four short weeks. The dedication is on the government's calendar, and cannot be changed. One problem. The FBI wants to name this gorgeous edifice at the same time it opened. Everyone said: “That's impossible. It takes at least eight months to a year to complete the process, [through] the House, the Senate and to the president's office.” I said: ‘I'm a school principal. And I said’ — excuse my French — ‘Oh, hell no. We're going to get this done.’ Immediately, I went into attack mode.
I went to the speaker, Speaker Boehner. I said, ‘Mr. Speaker, I need your help. The FBI needs your help. And your country needs your help. And we have no time to waste.’ He went into attack mode, and in two days pulled it out of committee. Brought it to the floor for a vote. Rep. Curbelo and I presented it. We all voted for it. And I dashed it over to the Senate. And put our senators on notice: Put it on your radar. Senator Nelson and Senator Rubio, who I believe have representatives here today, they hotlined it to the Senate floor in just two days. And guess what? The president signed the bill into law this past Tuesday, April 7, 2015. With a bang, bang, bang!
You know what? I will be presenting the bill, a copy of the bill, that was signed into the law, to the FBI and also the pen the president used to sign that document. It is a miracle, to say the least. But it speaks to the respect our Congress has for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The men and women who put their lives on the line every single day. And today we're providing a boost to our nation by naming this fantastic building in honor of Special Agent Benajmin Grogan and Jerry Dove, who died valiantly on Friday, April 11, in what is still considered the bloodiest gun battle in the storied history of the FBI.
Most men and women in law enforcement leave their homes for work knowing that there is a possibility that they may not return. I may [inaudible] for all men and women and first responders to stand up. Stand up now. So that we can applaud you and what you do. Stand up! We are proud of you. We are proud of your courage. Thank you.
I don't know if that was on the minds of agents Grogan and Dove as they left their homes on April 11, 1986. But I do know it was an unusually breezy spring morning in South Florida. So eerily similar today, and the actual anniversary is tomorrow.
I do [know] that Miami in the 1980s was plagued by crime and graphic violence. We all know that. This period has been chronicled in media reports, and portrayed on TV shows like Miami Vice and movies like Scarface. I know that Agent Grogan was a company man, and one year from retirement. His wife also was an employee of the FBI. I know that Agent Dove joined the bureau after completing law school, and was living his boyhood dream, according to his family.
I know their bravery was the motivation for joining a team on that morning. A team that was tailing a vehicle with two suspects who were connected to a string of murders and violence and bank robberies. The agents attempted to get the drivers to pull over. They were cornered. A gun battle immediately ensued. There was a barrage of bullets. I can only imagine the frustration of those agents. yet they battled on.
In a desperate attempt to flee, the suspects tried to commandeer Grogan and Dove’s vehicle. It is reported the suspects shot both agents with a high-powered rifle at close range. Shortly after, the suspects were themselves fatally shot by Agent Morales. Agent Morales made a memorable statement about his role in that historic event. He said, 'I just knew I was going to die. But I was going to do my very best to make sure that those suspects did not get away."
When the smoke cleared, two agents lay dead. And five were seriously injured. so today it is our patriotic duty to lift up Special Agent Benjamin Grogan and Special Agent Jerry Dove from the streets of South Florida, and place their names and pictures high. Where the world will know that we are proud of their sacrifice. Sacrifice for our nation. It is only fitting that their names should be placed on the same mantle with the letters FBI.
Because Special Agent Grogan and Dove embody the sacred motto for which the agency has become known. Please repeat it after me. Fidelity. Bravery. And integrity.
God bless you. God bless the FBI. and God bless America.