When White House Chief of Staff John Kelly condemned a Miami congresswoman on Thursday for sneering at President Donald Trump’s condolence call to a soldier’s widow, the retired general recalled when the two attended a somber ceremony in Miramar to dedicate a new FBI building named after two slain FBI agents.
Kelly criticized Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson for claiming “she got the money” for the new building during the 2015 ceremony while he and others in the audience were focused on the heroism of agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, killed during a 1986 shootout with bank robbers south of Miami.
Thursday night, Wilson said Kelly got the story flat-out wrong. In fact, she said Washington approved the money before she was even in Congress. The legislation she sponsored named the building after Grogan and Dove, a law enacted just days before the ceremony.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“He shouldn't be able to just say that, that is terrible,” Wilson said of Kelly’s remarks in the White House briefing room, the latest volley in the controversy over Trump’s condolence call to a military widow from Miami Gardens, an area Wilson represents. “This has become totally personal.”
In 2015, Wilson won praise from Miami Republicans for sponsoring the bill to name the long anticipated federal building after two agents who became legends in local law enforcement.
At the dedication ceremony, James Comey, then director of the FBI, lauded Wilson’s legislation, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama three days before the April 2015 ceremony.
“Rep. Wilson truly did the impossible, and we are eternally grateful,” Comey said in his remarks.
On Thursday evening, an administration spokesman issued a statement that said: “The White House stands by Gen. Kelly’s account of the event.”
The controversy was still raging at the White House late Thursday night. Shortly before 11 p.m., Trump tweeted: “The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”
The exchange began during a rare appearance in the White House briefing room by Kelly to address the firestorm over Wilson sharing her first-hand account of Trump’s call Tuesday to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed during an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger in West Africa. Wilson said Trump was disrespectful to his widow, Myeshia, by saying her husband had known what he was getting into by joining the Army, and by calling him “your guy” instead of using his name.
Kelly tapped into his personal experience as the former head of the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Doral, a position that often had him representing the Defense Department in local events. That included the dedication of the FBI regional building in Miramar, when he said Wilson’s remarks were jarring and self-serving.
“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.
The Miami Herald could not obtain video of the April 10, 2015, event, or a transcript of the remarks. Wilson denied saying what Kelly described, and said the timing made no sense.
The General Services Administration had already bid out a $144 million construction contract for the project in September 2010, just a few months before Wilson won her congressional seat. The bidding for federal projects takes place after Congress has secured the funding.
“That is crazy that I got [the money] and Mr. Obama just gave it to me,” Wilson said. “That building was funded long before I got to Congress. I didn’t say that. I have staff, people who write the speeches. You can’t say that.”
The 380,000-square-foot pair of glass towers cost $194 million to build, much higher than the $20 million Kelly cited in his White House remarks.
Months before the ceremony, Republican members of Congress from the Miami area praised Wilson’s effort to honor the FBI agents with a building in their names.
“I especially commend my friend, the gentlelady from Miami, Dr. Wilson, for spearheading this effort to commemorate and thank our law enforcement officers and especially to highlight the sacrifice these two agents made,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said on the House floor.
Wilson has been involved in a back-and-forth exchange with Trump over his conversation with Johnson’s widow. When Trump called Johnson’s family on Tuesday, Wilson was with them in a limo on the way to the airport to meet the casket.
Trump said “he knew what he signed up for … but when it happens it hurts anyway,” according to Wilson, who heard the call on speakerphone in the car.
“I think it’s so insensitive. It’s crazy. Why do you need to say that?’’ Wilson told the Miami 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.’
“I’m livid. He can’t even have an open-coffin funeral because his body is so messed up,’’ she added.
On Wednesday morning, Trump then accused Wilson of lying about his conversation with Johnson’s family.
“Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action,” Trump tweeted. “Sad!”
Wilson stood by her remarks, which were corroborated by Johnson’s family members in the car.
The saga prompted Kelly’s press conference on Thursday.
Johnson was a constituent of Wilson’s who participated in a program founded by the longtime legislator called the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, which mentors African-American boys and young men.
“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,” Wilson said in a statement. “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.”
Wilson said Thursday that she is intent on finding out why it took 48 hours for Johnson’s body to be located after the ambush, and that the White House is attacking her to distract from an investigation into Johnson’s death.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, also called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death on Thursday.
“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.”