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Rep. Frederica Wilson Might Have a Defamation Case Against John Kelly


General John Kelly got it wrong. And how.

While threatening to drench a White House lectern with tears borrowed from a large reptile or Hollywood prop shop, Kelly recited what was likely a prepared takedown aimed at Democratic Representative Frederica Wilson. He said:

A congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that [FBI] 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.

Except Kelly’s version of events isn’t remotely close to the truth.

The Orlando Sun Sentinel posted video footage of Wilson’s 2015 remarks about the FBI building in question.

In that video, Wilson does take credit for moving the legislation which named the building forward. But that’s a far cry from claiming that she “took care of her constituents” by securing the funding for the building.

And, it’s not just a matter of Kelly misremembering what occurred. Because his version of events is as detailed and lengthy as it brazen and false. It would be one thing if Kelly simply flubbed it by mixing up the words “naming” and “funding.”

Whom among us hasn’t accidentally given our recently purchased pets or newborn children a pile of cash instead of a name? It happens all the time.

But here, Kelly continued on and created a whole cloth tapestry of never-happened events to give his story a bit more imagery and vibrancy. After all, when you’re going to lie, go big or go home. And the White House trotted Kelly out like a weathered show poodle for a reason so he was quite eager to perform like the very good boy he is.

Instead of simply misremembering, Kelly’s attack on Wilson’s credibility created: (1) a scenario where she claimed to have helped her constituents–which she never claimed; (2) a repeat of the claim that got the money–which, again, she never said; and (3) a braggadocios description of a phone call with Barack Obama–both of which never occurred in our version of reality.

So, this was planned and probably scripted.

The most charitable reading for the general here is that he was fed the misinformation by Stephen Miller or some associated underling anxious to overplay their hand for a pat on the head. Good boys abound in the White House these days and they need constant affirmation. But Kelly should know better than to rely on the MAGA true believers and agitprop producers he’s supposed to be exacting a moderating influence upon. Turns out he’s not really doing that anymore–and probably never was.

So, once again conservatives are put into that classic bind from which they’ve got to choose whether to believe the rough-hued words of their father figure-like social betters or their own lying eyes. It should be fairly interesting to see how this all plays out.

In fact, were Representative Wilson so inclined, she might find it worth her while to pursue a claim of defamation against General Kelly. To be a bit conclusory–and based on the available evidence–it looks like most of the elements are there. They are:

  1. The defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff;
  2. The defendant published the statement without privilege to a third party;
  3. The defendant’s fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence; and
  4. Either the statement was actionable as a matter of law irrespective of special harm or its publication caused the plaintiff special harm.

Not only did Kelly baldly lie about Wilson’s remarks, he cast them in such a light that they would certainly qualify as defamatory–and by virtue of badmouthing Wilson in front of the nation, the publication element is easily satisfied. Simply defamatory statements alone don’t automatically rise to the level of legal defamation, of course, so Wilson would also have to show that Kelly was acting with something akin to negligence or actual malice–knowledge the statement was false.

Here, the availability of public records–from which Kelly could have referenced before making his accusations–and the possibility of Kelly having relied upon the Trump White House for the version he relayed to the country at least pose a question which could be provided to a jury. Since defamation cases rise and fail based on summary judgments, Wilson would have a fairly worthwhile case in line with D.C. court precedents. Where she would have the most trouble is the final element, pleading special harm.

In legalese, “special harm” isn’t particularly special. It just means an economic loss. Personally, Wilson isn’t likely to have suffered any such loss. However, if the representative could show a diminished amount of fundraising for her congressional campaign or something that effect, it would be an interesting case of first impression for the D.C. court system to hash out.

Needlessly distracting from Kelly’s genuine issues with the truth, however, Representative Wilson bizarrely characterized “empty barrel” as some sort of racial epithet. It’s not. (Though that charge might make a hypothetical slander lawsuit all the more interesting.)

There is the possibility that Kelly harbors anti-black bigotry because he grew up in Boston, a beautiful city with an exceedingly ugly history and legacy of racism and racial discord. But that’s not quite the same as inventing a racial slur out of thin air.

Kelly lied or was willingly fed misinformation by the error prone White House. That’s bad enough. So, let’s leave it at that.

[image via screengrab]

Follow Colin Kalmbacher on Twitter: @colinkalmbacher

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