The White House has rushed to defend chief of staff John Kelly after he mischaracterised the remarks of a Democratic congresswoman, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders calling her an “empty barrel” making noise.
Ms Sanders said it was “inappropriate” to question General Kelly in light of his stature as a retired four-star general.
The administration also insisted it was long past time to end the political squabbling and insult trading over President Donald Trump’s compassion for America’s war dead, even as it lobbed fresh vilification at Florida Democrat Representative Frederica Wilson.
Ms Wilson kept the barbed exchanges going, adding a new element by suggesting a racial context.
Taking cues from a President who hates to back down, the administration staunchly defended General Kelly, who a day before had denounced Ms Wilson’s criticism of Mr Trump and added his condemnation of past remarks he said she had made at a Miami event.
General Kelly said she had delivered a 2015 speech at an FBI field office dedication in which she “talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building”, rather than keeping the focus on the fallen agents for which it was named.
Video of the speech contradicted his recollection.
Ms Wilson, in an interview with The New York Times, brought race into the dispute.
“The White House itself is full of white supremacists,” said Ms Wilson, who is black, as is the Florida family Mr Trump had called in a condolence effort this week that led to the back-and-forth name calling.
Mr Trump, in an interview with Fox Business Network, then called Ms Wilson’s criticism of General Kelly “sickening”.
And, in a comment that seems unlikely to be the last word, he said he actually had a “very nice call”, with the family of Sergeant La David Johnson.
It all started when Ms Wilson told reporters Mr Trump had insulted the family of Sergreant Johnson, who was killed two weeks ago in Niger.
She was fabricating that, Mr Trump said, an accusation that the soldier’s widow and aunt have denied.
Then General Kelly strode out in the White House briefing room on Thursday, backing up the President and suggesting Ms Wilson was just grandstanding, as he said she had at the FBI dedication in 2015.
After news accounts took issue with part of that last accusation, Ms Sanders chastised reporters on Friday for questioning the account of a decorated general.
“If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you,” she said.
“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.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and an Air Force veteran, rejected Ms Sanders’ contention that questioning a general was out of line, saying simply, “No, not in America”.
‘All hat and no cattle’
Video of the FBI office dedication in Miami, from the archives of South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, showed Ms Wilson never mentioned the building’s funding, though she did recount at length her efforts to help name the building in honour of the special agents.
That did nothing to deter Ms Sanders, who said: “If you’re able to make a sacred act like honouring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”
Ms Sanders also used a dismissive Southwest rancher’s term, calling Ms Wilson, who often wears elaborate hats, “all hat and no cattle”.
Ms Wilson was in the car with the family of Sergeant Johnson, who died in an October 4 ambush that killed four American soldiers in Niger, when Mr Trump called to express his condolences.
She said in an interview that Mr Trump had told Sergeant Johnson’s widow, “You know that this could happen when you signed up for it … but it still hurts”.
Sergeant Johnson’s aunt, who raised the soldier from a young age, said the family took that remark to be disrespectful.
The Defence Department is investigating the details of the Niger ambush, in which Islamic militants on motorcycles brought rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, killing the four and wounding others.
The FBI said it was assisting, as it has in the past when American citizens are killed overseas.
Ms Sanders said on Friday that if the “spirit” in which Mr Trump’s comments “were intended were misunderstood, that’s very unfortunate”.
Mr Trump told associates he was furious about what he perceived as unfair media coverage of the phone-call controversy.
He posted on Twitter late on Thursday: The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!
Ms Wilson said the family had put his phone call on speakerphone, and stood by her account.
Ms Sanders said Mr Trump chose to tweet about the controversy because it “should have ended yesterday after General Kelly’s comments. But it didn’t. It continued, and it’s still continuing today”.
General Kelly, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, was outraged over what he saw as Ms Wilson trying to score political points off a tragedy, according to two White House officials not authorised to discuss private conversations.
Ms Sanders said it was “a personal decision” by General Kelly to discuss the matter publicly.