Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly

Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly

WASHINGTON – Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., the congresswoman who attacked President Trump after his phone call to a Gold Star widow, is now playing the race card in her public feud with White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly.

Speaking with CNN on Friday morning, Wilson slammed Kelly for calling her an “empty barrel,” saying the characterization is racist.

“That’s a racist term, too. I’m thinking about that one. 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,” Wilson said Friday on CNN’s “New Day.” “The only thing I want to be dragged into right now is getting back our girls who are the victims of Boko Haram in Nigeria.”

It’s the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between the Trump administration and Wilson that began earlier this week after the Florida Democrat said Trump was insensitive when he told the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, a Green Beret killed in an ambush in Niger, that the soldier “knew what he was getting into.”

“He was almost like joking, he said something to the fact that, ‘He knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway,'” she said earlier in the week on MSNBC. “You know, just matter of factly that this is what happens.”

Kelly said he was “stunned” to learn a Democrat member of Congress would exploit the “sacred” moment Trump spent giving condolences to the widow of a fallen soldier to score cheap political points.

“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” Kelly told reporters. “A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist. He enlisted, and he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.”

Kelly’s “empty barrel” comment was apparently in reference to Wilson’s attendance at a 2015 FBI ceremony to dedicate a building to two slain agents.

Kelly said Thursday that Wilson used the event to brag that she “was instrumental in getting the funding” for the building.

“We were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned,” Kelly said. “But none of us went to the press and criticized. none of us stood up and were appalled.”

But Wilson told CNN the funding was approved before she even began serving in Congress.

“I wasn’t even in Congress when the money for that building was appropriated,” Wilson said. “You know, I feel sorry for General Kelly. He has my sympathy for the loss of his son. But he can’t just go on TV and lie on me.”

Kelly appeared before the White House press corps Thursday, leaving the room quiet and pensive after describing his own experience of losing a son in battle.

Kelly said he had advised the president on what to say to the family of an American soldier who was lost.

He said he told Trump, “There’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden.”

But he said the message that helped him was that, “He knew what he was getting into by joining that one percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we are at war. When he died in the four cases where are talking about in Niger, and in my son’s case in Afghanistan – when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth – with his friends.”

Kelly refuted claims that Trump disrespected the widow, explaining that he met with the president before he made the condolence calls to the families of the fallen American servicemen and they agreed Trump would emphasize that the soldiers were brave souls and heroes.

The politicization of the issue was accomplished when Wilson revealed  she was listening in on speaker phone when Trump made a call to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, earlier this week.

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“It stuns me that a member of Congress would listen in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought, at least that was sacred,” he said. “You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country, women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases.”

Kelly said he walked around Arlington National Cemetery to collect his thoughts after hearing Wilson’s blast.

“Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. That’s gone. Religion – that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left at the convention over the summer,” he said.

At the cemetery, he said, he thought, “Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. But I just thought, self-devotion, that brings a man or woman to die on the battle field, I just thought that, that might be sacred. And when I listen to this woman was saying, what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts, is to go walk among the finest men and women on this earth – and you can always find them, because they’re at Arlington National Cemetery.

“I went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there, because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”

Wilson claimed Trump was disrespecting the family when he called and said something like – there were no recordings – “He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.”

In an interview on CNN, Wilson offered a more detailed quote from the call, which she said the widow took while the two were in a limousine and on speakerphone.

“Well, he basically said, um, ‘Well, I guess he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurts,'” said Wilson. “That’s what he said.”

She repeated virtually the same story the next morning on MSNBC.

“He was almost like joking, he said something to the fact that, ‘He knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway,'” she said. “You know, just matter of factly that this is what happens.”

The second part of the quote, as relayed at least twice in live interviews with Wilson, was not referenced at all by the New York Times, reported the Washington Examiner.

NBC News’ online report had the “must’ve known what he signed up for” quote in its first paragraph. But that article also did not have the second half, according to the news site.

Wilson said Tuesday she was on the way to the airport with Johnson to collect her husband’s body when she received the call from Trump and said she wanted to curse the president out.

“I asked them to give me the phone because I wanted to speak with him, and I was going to curse him out,” she said according to a report from ABC affiliate Local 10 News. “That was my reaction at that time. I was livid. But they would not give me the phone.”

Johnson, who is six months pregnant with the couple’s third child, did not say anything in response to Trump’s comment, Wilson claimed, because she was overcome with emotion, particularly since she had just been informed they could not have an open casket at her husband’s funeral.

“The only thing she said when it was time to hang up was, ‘Thank you, bye bye,'” Wilson said.

Trump had responded to the liberal congresswoman on Wednesday.

“I didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all – she knows it. I had a very nice conversation with the woman, the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman,” Trump explained

Arnold Wright, the father of Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, spoke to Time Magazine about the claims Wilson made against Trump.

His assessment of the president’s phone call was contrary to Wilson’s characterization of Trump as insensitive.

“He talked to me about the loss of my son and how he served with honor and dignity and he just wanted to give me a call to thank me,” Wright told TIME in a phone interview. “I told him the kind of man Dustin was. We talked about his deployment. … We got troops out there with no air cover. There are still teams in the country. That was the main point that was the conversation.”

Wright said even the statements portrayed by Wilson were not offensive.

“I’ll say it: my son knew what he signed up for. He signed up to be a Green Beret. He had no illusions about what that meant,” said Wright, a military veteran himself. “My son came from a military family with a tradition that dates back to 1812. He fully knew what it means to serve and the risk involved.”

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