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White House: It's 'highly inappropriate' to question the accuracy of John Kelly's claims about Florida Democrat

Key Points
  • White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday said it was "highly inappropriate" to question the accuracy of statements by White House chief of staff John Kelly.
  • A day earlier, Kelly had criticized Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida for what he claimed she had said in a 2015 speech. Video showed that Kelly was wrong.
  • Sanders equated a reporter's question about Kelly's account with "going after General Kelly."
White House: 'Highly inappropriate' to question accuracy of Gen. Kelly's statements

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sent shockwaves through the White House briefing room on Friday when she told reporters it is "highly inappropriate" to question the accuracy of a statement made by White House chief of staff John Kelly, in part because Kelly had served in the military.

The brief but dramatic exchange with CBS White House reporter Chip Reid began when Reid asked whether Kelly would be willing to come to the briefing room and discuss an account he had given the previous day of a 2015 building dedication ceremony in Florida.

Kelly said he recalled a speech by Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., in which she boasted of having secured the federal funding in Congress for the construction of the building.

But video of the Wilson's speech, posted Friday by the Florida Sun-Sentinel, shows that Kelly was wrong: Wilson did not claim in the speech to have had any part in the funding of the building, which had taken place before she was even elected to Congress.

Rather, Wilson had used her time at the podium to thank her colleagues for fast-tracking a naming bill she had sponsored, which proposed naming the completed building after two FBI agents killed in the line of duty.

On Friday, Reid asked Sanders about the discrepancy between Kelly's description and the video of Wilson's speech, and Sanders replied that "Wilson also had several other comments that day that weren't part of that video that were also witnessed by many people that were there."

"Tell us specifically, then, when she took credit [for the funding]," Reid said.

"Exactly what [Kelly] said, there was a lot of grandstanding. He was stunned that she had taken that opportunity to make it about herself," Sanders responded.

"Can he come out and talk about this at some point?" Reid asked.

"I think [Kelly] addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday," Sanders said.

Reid persisted. "But he was wrong yesterday, talking about getting the money. The money was appropriated before [Wilson] came to Congress."

"If you want to go after General Kelly, that's up to you," Sanders snapped. "But I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine General, I think that that's something highly inappropriate."

Sanders then pivoted quickly to the next question, leaving many in the room stunned about what they'd just heard.

The exchange was the latest chapter in an escalating effort by the White House to defend President Donald Trump's handling of calls to the families of fallen service members.

Earlier this week, Wilson criticized the president for telling Myeshia Johnson, the widow of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, in a phone call that her late husband "knew what he was signing up for," but that "when it happens, it still hurts."

La David Johnson was killed in action earlier this month in Niger. Wilson had known the Johnson family for years, and she was in a car with Myeshia Johnson when the president's call came in.

Kelly's own son was killed in combat in Afghanistan, and on Thursday he lit into Wilson from the lectern in the White House briefing room, saying it was "disgusting" that Wilson had repeated part of the call, which she heard when Myeshia Johnson put it on speakerphone.

Kelly then brought up the 2015 building dedication in Miami and called Wilson an "empty barrel making noise." He claimed that Wilson boasted about getting then-President Barack Obama to agree to the building funds during a phone call.

Here is Kelly's account, from Thursday's briefing:

And then the 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 as the video later showed, Wilson said no such thing. Click here to watch Wilson's entire 2015 speech.

The White House on Friday did not immediately respond to questions from CNBC about why it would be "highly inappropriate" to question Kelly's account.