After Video Refutes Kelly’s Charges, Congresswoman Raises Issue of Race

While she stopped short of accusing Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general, of racial animus, she did say that others in the White House are racially biased.

“They are making themselves look like fools. They have no credibility,” she said. “They are trying to assassinate my character, and they are assassinating their own because everything they say is coming out and shown to be a lie.”

But Mr. Trump and his top aides remained defiant on Friday, even after the video was released. In an interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo, Mr. Trump said he found Ms. Wilson’s criticism of Mr. Kelly “sickening.” The president called his chief of staff “a very elegant man,” and added that Mr. Kelly “is a tough, strong four-star Marine.”

Mr. Kelly, Mr. Trump said, was offended that Ms. Wilson publicized what the president said was a “very nice” call to the widow of a soldier killed in action in Niger.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said that Mr. Kelly “absolutely” stands by his Thursday remarks.

“General Kelly said he was ‘stunned’ that Representative Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain F.B.I. agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation,” Ms. Sanders said in a statement. “As General Kelly pointed out, if you’re able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”


John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, on Thursday.

Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Ms. Sanders escalated the messaging a few hours later: “As we say in the South: all hat, no cattle,” she said. Ms. Wilson is known in the Capitol and in South Florida for her colorful hats.

Ms. Sanders also told a reporter who questioned Mr. Kelly’s veracity that “if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”

The charges and countercharges on Friday veered into the incendiary issue of race. Ms. Wilson is African-American, as is Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, one of four American soldiers killed on Oct. 4 in Niger.

People in Ms. Wilson’s South Florida district and some members of the Congressional Black Caucus echoed Ms. Wilson’s accusations, though they also noted that Mr. Trump attacks people of all races. The caucus chairman, Representative Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana, defended Ms. Wilson as “a champion for the people of South Florida.”

“It is unfortunate that the president of the United States lacks the capacity to comfort a grieving widow,” Mr. Richmond said. “It is also unfortunate that he and his chief of staff saw fit to attack a sitting member of Congress.”

Clifford W. Jordan, 60, the general manager of a nursing company in the same building as Ms. Wilson’s Miami Gardens office, said the criticism of the congresswoman smacked of racism and sexism.

“There’s all this noise around the one black guy who died in Niger — no one is even talking about the other guys — and now they’re going after this black congresswoman,” said Mr. Jordan, whose father died in the 1960s while serving as a sergeant in the Air Force.

“It’s almost like General Kelly was telling the congresswoman, ‘You don’t know your place, you’re not supposed to criticize the president,’” said Mr. Jordan, who is black. “That’s how it looks to the black people.”

Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat and the Virgin Islands’ delegate to Congress, said she was especially offended that Mr. Trump did not seem to know Sergeant Johnson’s name.

“He continually called that fallen soldier ‘your guy’ to his wife. That was his wife,” she said. “It was almost as if he doesn’t believe that we have husbands and wives as black people. And that I find very disturbing, that he would not give her the respect of calling that soldier her husband.”

“I think he challenges anybody who goes after him and corrects him, whether they are black or white or male or female,” she continued. “I think the attack is more stark when it is a woman of color.”

Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California, said it was not surprising to see people attack Sergeant Johnson’s widow in racially derogatory terms on social media. “He has given license to this,” Ms. Bass said of President Trump. “He’s promoted it. He’s agitated it. He’s encouraged it.”

Ms. Sanders did not speak to the issue of race when asked later to respond to such comments. “It’s appalling the congresswoman continues to make the death of an American hero about herself instead of honoring the fallen who selflessly gave their lives for all of us,” Ms. Sanders said in an emailed statement.

The issue exploded this week when Ms. Wilson went public to say that in a condolence call to Ms. Johnson, Mr. Trump had said that Sergeant Johnson “knew what he signed up for.”

Mr. Trump flatly declared that Ms. Wilson’s account was fabricated, but on Thursday, when Mr. Kelly defended the president, he did not reject her account.

Instead, he accused her of turning Sergeant Johnson’s death into a political stunt. The congresswoman had known Sergeant Johnson and his family for years, beginning when, in elementary school, he joined a mentoring program that she had started. She was in the limousine with Ms. Johnson and her two children, awaiting Sergeant Johnson’s body at Miami International Airport, when the president’s call came in over a speakerphone.

Although he did not use her name, Mr. Kelly said he and the congresswoman were both at the 2015 ceremony for a new Miami F.B.I. building that was named after Benjamin P. Grogan and Jerry L. Dove, agents who were killed in a 1986 shootout. Mr. Kelly said Ms. Wilson had taken credit for getting the funding for the building. Ms. Wilson’s congressional district includes parts of Miami.

“And we were stunned — stunned that she’d done it,” Mr. Kelly said. “Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”

Mr. Trump’s aides — many of whom had teared up during Mr. Kelly’s remarks on Thursday, seeing them as an emotional defense of the president — were angry on Friday as the controversy continued.

“It should have ended yesterday after General Kelly’s comments. But it didn’t. It continued,” Ms. Sanders said. “He thought it was important that people got a full and accurate picture of what took place.”

If that was his goal, Mr. Kelly failed. His recollection of Ms. Wilson’s appearance at the dedication of the F.B.I. building was highly inaccurate, and only ratcheted up the political tensions.

During the April 2015 dedication ceremony for the building that houses the F.B.I.’s South Florida operations, Ms. Wilson spoke about how quickly she was able to get a bill through the typically slow and bureaucratic Congress.

“It is a miracle, to say the least,” Ms. Wilson said of the swift legislative action. But, she said, the quick passage shows how much respect Congress has for the F.B.I.

“Most men and women in law enforcement leave their homes for work knowing that there is a possibility they may not return,” Ms. Wilson said.

Correction: October 20, 2017

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated that all members of the Congressional Black Caucus are Democrats. There is one Republican member.

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