Eyebrows were raised in the Rose Garden on Monday during an impromptu press conference from President Donald Trump, who is facing growing criticism over his delay in calling the families of four U.S. soldiers who perished in Niger, the worst military casualty since Trump took office.
When asked why he hadn’t reached out, Trump deflected, first saying he’d written letters but they hadn’t been sent out yet, then that his predecessors hadn’t made any such calls, or not nearly as many. He said, in full:[lborder]
I will at some point during the period of time call the parents and the families because I have done that traditionally. I felt very, very badly about that; I always feel bad. The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens, soldiers are killed. It’s a very difficult thing. Now, it gets to a point where you make four or five of them in one day, it’s a very, very tough day. For me that’s by far the toughest.
So, the traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally I would say that I like to call. I’m going to be calling them—I want a little time to pass—I’m going to be calling them. I have, as you know, since I’ve been president I have. But in addition I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we’re talking about and they’re going to be going out either today or tomorrow.[/lborder]
It’s unclear whether or not President Trump actually believes that previous presidents made no such calls. Since presidential meetings with families of fallen soldiers—either over the phone or in person—tend to be kept private out of respect, there’s no way of verifying exactly how many times Obama, Bush or any other president has done so. Nevertheless, such a claim strains the bounds of credulity.
Former White House photographer Pete Souza recalled Obama “meeting with hundreds of wounded soldiers, and family members of those killed in action.” Former deputy chief of staff under President Obama Alyssa Mastromonaco was more direct in her response, tweeting, “That’s a f***ing lie.”
President George W. Bush was renowned for his dedication to reaching out to the families of fallen soldiers, as spokesman for the former president, Freddy Ford related to the Associated Press. He said that Bush met “hundreds, if not thousands” of such families.
Trump later hedged his claim slightly, saying: “I was told that he [Obama] didn’t often, and a lot of presidents don’t. They write letters.” He went on: “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. … Some presidents didn’t do anything.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the president’s remarks, saying “the President wasn’t criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact.”
“When American heroes make the ultimate sacrifice, presidents pay their respects,” she said. “Sometimes they call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person. This president, like his predecessors, has done each of these. Individuals claiming former presidents, such as their bosses, called each family of the fallen, are mistaken.”
The White House is facing questions over exactly what happened in Niger, and why a group of soldiers who were evidently sent in an advisory capacity would be out on patrol.
On Tuesday, the AP reported that Trump plans to call the families of the four fallen soldiers, but he did not back down from his claim about Obama’s failures to do so, saying, “You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”