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How John Kelly's Trump Defense Is Being Received

Congresswoman he criticized accuses him of using 'racist term'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 20, 2017 9:37 AM CDT
Updated Oct 20, 2017 1:02 PM CDT
How John Kelly's Trump Defense Is Being Received
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House Thursday.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(Newser) – White House chief of staff John Kelly made a rare foray into the national spotlight on Thursday with his emotional defense of President Trump's call to a fallen soldier's family. Kelly's own son was killed serving in Afghanistan, lending his words a powerful impact, and the four-star general is winning widespread praise for his appearance. Some critics, however, think he veered off course by getting political as he waded into the feud between Trump and Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who has accused the president of being insensitive to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson. And Wilson herself is accusing Kelly of a racist attack. Here's a look:

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  • In praise: The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal writes that Kelly "made a lot of people look small," his boss included. Kelly's remarks were a "rebuke to the Congresswoman for politicizing a private phone call, and to the press corps for attempting to turn grief and sacrifice into a hammer against Donald Trump—who, as usual, made things worse by lashing out in response."
  • Ditto: At the conservative Hot Air site, Allahpundit calls Kelly's appearance "one of the most effective damage-control performances you’ll ever see by possibly the only man in the administration with the moral authority to do it." The blogger has some issues, such as Kelly skirting the fact that the soldier's mother also found the president's call insensitive, but says Trump could not have asked for a better defense.
  • 'Racist' accusation: At one point, Kelly referred to Wilson as being "in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise," and the African-American congresswoman called "empty barrel" a "racist term" on CNN Friday morning. "We looked it up in the dictionary because I had never heard of an empty barrel. And I don't like to be dragged into something like that."
  • Why 'racist'? It wasn't immediately clear why Wilson determined the phrase was racist. Fox News reports that Kelly has used "empty barrel" previously to criticize lawmakers, and the Washington Free Beacon offers this definition: "The idiom is in fact used to question the (empty) thought behind a person's words (noise). Simply as a fact of physics, a barrel or vessel will produce the most noise when empty and disturbed."

  • Facts in dispute: Kelly on Thursday also accused Wilson of taking undue credit for securing funds for an FBI building in Miami dedicated to fallen FBI agents. But the Miami Herald reports that Kelly "got the story flat-out wrong," per Wilson, who says she sponsored a bill on the naming of the building, and that funding for it had been secured before she entered Congress. The White House has stood by Kelly's accusation, but a video of the 2015 dedication ceremony from the Sun-Sentinel suggests Wilson was correct. She spoke at length about how she secured approval for the naming of the site, but didn't take credit for any funding.
  • What about Trump? At CNN, columnist Chris Cillizza thinks Kelly went astray in accusing Wilson of trying to score political points. "Casting aspersions on those who allegedly are destroying once-sacred institutions overlooks the role that Trump has also played in doing just that," he writes, citing, among other things, Trump's previous feud with the Khizr Khan family.
  • Movie connection: Kelly also spoke of the 2009 HBO movie Taking Chance, about the death of Pfc. Chance Phelps. Kelly revealed, perhaps for the first time, that he was standing next to the Marine when Phelps was killed in Iraq, reports the New York Times. The Washington Post, meanwhile, has details on the death of Kelly's son, Robert, in 2010, and Kelly's recollections of being informed his death.
(Read more John Kelly stories.)

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