Following a week in which President Trump managed to turn the other cheek against some high-profile slights, he renewed his feud Sunday with Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida, who has accused him of being insensitive to the widow of a slain soldier.
The fourth-term lawmaker said the president is hiding behind his chief of staff, John F. Kelly. Mr. Kelly criticized Mrs. Wilson for listening in on Mr. Trump’s phone call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, killed Oct. 4 with other Green Berets in an ambush in Niger.
“He was a puppet of the president, and what he was trying to do was divert the attention away from the president and onto me,” Mrs. Wilson said on MSNBC Sunday.
She also accused Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, of “character assassination” for asserting that she is an “empty barrel” who talked only about herself at the dedication of an FBI building named for two slain agents in 2015. Video of the ceremony showed Mrs. Wilson praising the agents by name effusively.
“Not only does he owe me an apology, he owes an apology to the American people, because when he lied on me he lied to them and I don’t think it’s fair,” Mrs. Wilson said. “He owes the American people an apology for lying on one of their congresswomen.”
The war of words has dominated news coverage of the White House for nearly a week, overshadowing an important administration victory as the Senate approved a budget that clears the way for Mr. Trump’s tax-cut plan. Retired Gen. David Petraeus, a former colleague of Mr. Kelly, said on ABC’s “This Week” that he believes the president’s chief of staff is “trying to figure out how to turn down the volume, how to get this behind us, and how to focus on what is really important to the country overall.”
Also overlooked in the furor were several examples of Mr. Trump, a notorious counterpuncher, actually holding his tongue when others cast aspersions at him.
When Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, decried the abandonment of global leadership “for the sake of some half-baked spurious nationalism,” Mr. Trump’s response was mild, by his standards.
“You know, I’m being very nice,” the president said. “But at some point, I fight back, and it won’t be pretty.”
That’s the presidential equivalent of a parent warning children in the back seat, “Don’t make me stop this car.”
When former President George W. Bush warned of “bullying and prejudice” in public life, reporters asked Mr. Trump for his response to the speech that seemed to target him indirectly.
“I didn’t see it,” Mr. Trump said.
Former President Barack Obama, campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam in Virginia on the same day, also appeared to take a swipe at Mr. Trump without mentioning him by name.
“We’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry — to demonize people who have different ideas; to get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage,” Mr. Obama said.
But from Mr. Trump? Not a tweet, not a peep.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the controversy with Mrs. Wilson should have ended when Mr. Kelly made a dramatic plea to the media and the public Thursday to uphold the sanctity of a president trying to pay tribute to the families of the fallen.
“The president responded to those continued accusations and continued mischaracterizations of his comments,” she said.
Some in the media say Mr. Trump should have ignored Mrs. Wilson’s criticisms. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd asked Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, “Why do you think he couldn’t take the high road?”
Mr. Graham replied that Mr. Trump might have delivered condolences “inartfully” to Sgt. Johnson’s widow, but added, “I can promise you this, if I had been in the car with somebody, and President Obama was on the end of the phone, I would not have politicized this like Congresswoman Wilson.”
Instead, Mr. Graham said, “I would just urge President Trump, let’s talk a little bit about the four soldiers.”
The president’s advisers believe the controversy is yet another example of media-driven hostility against Mr. Trump.
“I do think that there is a heightened tension certainly between this administration and the press,” Mrs. Sanders said on Fox News Sunday. “I think you can see that in the coverage. I’ve been around press and worked in politics my entire life, and I’ve never experienced the kind of hostility that I think we see day to day.”
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