Chief of Staff Kelly makes false claims in dispute over Trump's military condolence call

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (left) talks with White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters in the White House in Washington on Oct 20, 2017.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (left) talks with White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters in the White House in Washington on Oct 20, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The White House's aggressive effort to discredit a Florida congresswoman who criticised President Donald Trump over a military condolence call ran into a new set of problems when a video emerged showing that the chief of staff had made false claims about her.

It marked the fifth day of a controversy that has raged since Mr Trump attempted to deflect criticism of his handling of the deaths of four service members in an ambush in Niger.

The ensuing debate has focused on attacks against Republican Frederica Wilson that have proved to be inaccurate but that the White House has refused to back away from, with the latest episode ensnaring Chief of Staff John Kelly, a decorated retired Marine general.

The escalating political mud fight has overshadowed the grief of Mrs Myeshia Johnson and the heroism of her dead husband, Sergeant La David Johnson, who gave his life for his country.

Trump aides on Friday (oct 20) stood by Mr Kelly's contention that Ms Wilson had boasted about her role in winning funding for a federal building, even after video of her remarks emerged and showed that he was wrong.

In a rare appearance before reporters a day earlier to defend Mr Trump's calls to grieving military families, Mr Kelly suggested that Ms Wilson was like "empty barrels making the most noise" while recalling her appearance at a 2015 event that he attended to christen a new complex of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Miami.

Ms Wilson has come under heavy criticism from Mr Trump and his supporters for publicly accusing the president of being insensitive in a phone call to Mrs Johnson two weeks ago, after her husband died in the line of duty.

But video of Ms Wilson's nine-minute speech at the 2015 event, posted by the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, shows that she spoke solely about her efforts to get the building named after two fallen FBI agents, praised the agents for their service and thanked colleagues in Congress from both parties.

Instead of backing down, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders piled on last Friday (oct 20) and said Mr Kelly was justified in accusing the lawmaker of grandstanding, despite erring on the facts.

"As we say in the South: all hat, no cattle," Mrs Sanders said of Ms Wilson, an African-American who is known for wearing brightly coloured cowboy hats.

Mrs Sanders also attempted to shift the debate away from Mr Kelly's inaccuracies to instead focus on his personal integrity.

"If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate," she said.

Critics said the episode reflects Mr Trump's continued efforts to avoid scrutiny of his conduct in office by casting blame elsewhere.

The president waited 12 days to comment on the soldiers' deaths before being asked about his silence at a Rose Garden news conference on Monday (oct 16).

In defending himself, Mr Trump erroneously accused former presidents of failing to call military families whose loved ones were killed in action. Mr Trump later defended his claim by publicly disclosing that former President Barack Obama had not called Mr Kelly after his son, Robert, was killed in Afghanistan.