White House chief of staff John Kelly must have forgotten that we live in a world of receipts. Because Kelly thought he could completely misrepresent a story about Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.)—one that paints her as self-serving and self-aggrandizing; that he could insult her intelligence; that he could engage in some grand-ass moral posturing about what is “sacred” in this country, and get away with it.
But we live in a world of receipts, and the Sun Sentinel whipped out an incredible one—directly refuting a story Kelly told about Wilson in which he referred to her as an “empty barrel.”
On Thursday, Kelly addressed the press on the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump and his remarks to a Gold Star widow, Myeshia Johnson, whose husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, was killed in Niger earlier this month.
The press lauded Kelly’s speech as “extraordinary”—largely because he rarely speaks on the record and because the typically guarded Kelly got personal. But Kelly saved particularly harsh condemnation for Wilson, who first spoke to the press about Trump’s insensitive comments to Myeshia Johnson.
In the conversation, Trump reportedly told Myeshia that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” According to Wilson, Myeshia was particularly shaken up because the president didn’t even seem to know La David’s name.
Kelly attacked Wilson for listening in on the conversation. The former general also told a story about Wilson that supposedly showcased her selfishness and narcissism: an anecdote about a building dedication in Miami to two slain FBI agents.
“A congresswoman stood up,” said Kelly, referring to the Democratic lawmaker, CNN reports, “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, and we were stunned.”
Wilson quickly pushed back on Kelly’s story, telling CNN’s New Day that she “was not even in Congress in 2009, when the money for the building was secured.”
“So that’s a lie,” said the Florida Democrat. Wilson also pointed out that Kelly labeling her an “empty barrel” was racist.
And wouldn’t you know it, the Sun Sentinel backed her up, releasing a video of her full remarks that day.
Not once does Wilson take credit for securing the money for the building. She did take credit for naming the building after the two slain FBI agents—but as Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale points out, then-FBI Director James Comey gave her credit, too.
In fact, the video plainly shows that Wilson credited both Republican and Democratic lawmakers with speeding up what is normally a tedious and prolonged process.
Kelly got it all the way wrong, but it should come as no surprise that the White House is sticking by its version of events, according to The Hill. As a matter of fact, the White House is doubling down.
“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,” White House press secretary Sarah 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,” Sanders continued.
But the White House has no damn business entering a conversation about what’s sacred or what’s honorable.
This administration has persistently targeted and denigrated black women—a pattern underscored by its repeated “empty barrel” insults aimed at Wilson.
As Jamelle Bouie of Slate notes, in the last 9 months, Trump’s White House has called for the head of ESPN anchor Jemelle Hill for calling the president a white supremacist. Journalist April Ryan and Congresswoman Maxine Waters have also come into the administration’s crosshairs, as did former national security adviser Susan Rice for “unmasking” Trump officials following the election. Now, the White House has waged war against Wilson.
To be clear, Kelly didn’t just completely misrepresent Wilson’s behavior and words. In calling her an empty barrel, he was calling her loud and stupid.
Not only is that about as mean-spirited a remark as a man in his position could make about a fellow public servant, but it also follows a long American tradition of dismissing black women by insulting their intelligence and their value. Kelly implied that Wilson has no business speaking up so loudly, so vociferously, because she’s “empty,” which is to say, unworthy. It was for her he saved his most vitriolic comments—saying nothing of the president he serves, the dotard who politicized the entire event to begin with when he compared his outreach to military families with Obama’s.
Lest we forget, it was Trump who dragged Kelly and his son’s death into this news cycle. And yet it was Wilson whom Kelly attacked with the ferocity of a frothing pitbull. It was she whom Kelly tried to paint as a self-promoting narcissist.
It’s worth remembering that Sgt. La David Johnson’s death first drew attention because of the questionable circumstances surrounding it—an issue that Wilson continues to raise even as her enemies try to drag her down.
“My emphasis today is on my constituents and helping them lay our hero to rest,” the congresswoman told CNN on Friday morning. “That’s where my head is today. I’m also concerned about [Johnson] and his last moments. I want to know why he was separated from the rest of the soldiers.
“Why did it take 48 hours to find him? Was he still alive? Was he kidnapped? What’s going on?” Wilson continued. “I am distraught and so is the family. There are so many questions that should be answered.”
Wilson—not Kelly, and certainly not Trump—is the only public servant who is truly fighting for Johnson right now. The only one who’s treating the fallen soldier’s life as if it were sacred. The only one who remembers what this is all about.