On Thursday, White House chief of staff John Kelly — a Gold Star father and a four-star general — gave a much-ballyhooed press conference in which he ripped into Rep. Frederica Wilson (R-FL), whom he suggested had used a presidential call to Gold Star widow Myeshia Johnson for her own political gain. Kelly explicitly tore into Wilson over an April 2015 event at which Kelly suggested that Wilson had touted her own contribution to the building of a building named after two fallen FBI agents. Here was Kelly’s account:
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, O.K., fine.
So, did Kelly get it wrong?
Yes on one score, no on another.
As it turns out, Wilson didn’t generate the funding for the building. She wasn’t in Congress when the funding was approved. But Kelly’s larger point was that Wilson had given a self-aggrandizing speech inappropriately at a memorial service.
So, did Wilson do that?
You be the judge. Here’s what she said about her own contributions to naming the building:
Consider this scenario. The brand new federal buiding that will house 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 in four weeks.” Everyone said, ‘That’s impossible. It takes at least eight months to a year to complete the process through the House, the Senate, and the president’s office.” I said, “I’m a school principal,” and I said, excuse my French, “Aw hell no. We’re gonna get this done.” Immediately, I went into attack mode. I went to the Speaker, Speaker Boehner, and I said, “Mr. Speaker, I need your help. The FBI needs your help, and our 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. … We all voted 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 have representatives here today, they hotlined it to the Senate floor in just two days. And guess what, the president signed it into law this past Tuesday, April 7, 2015 with a BANG, BANG, BANG!
You know what, I will be presenting a copy of the bill that was signed into law to the FBI and also the pen that the president used to sign that hallowed document. It is a miracle to say the least, but it speaks to the respect that our Congress has for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the men and women who put their lives on the line every single day. …
Does that sound self-aggrandizing? Does it sound as though Wilson made herself the hero of the story? Does it sound more like a campaign speech than like a somber dedication of a building to two fallen FBI heroes?
So, was Kelly wrong?
Not really. He may have been wrong about the question of Wilson taking credit for the building funding versus the name, but he certainly wasn't wrong about Wilson patting herself on the back in an inappropriate way.