By: Calvin Woodward and Jonathan Lemire
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday will call the families of four soldiers killed this month in Niger, the White House says, as Trump again casts doubt on whether his predecessor appropriately consoled the families of military personnel who died in war.
Trump in a radio interview Tuesday suggested that President Barack Obama did not call John Kelly, a former Marine general who is now White House chief of staff, when his son, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
“I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died,” Trump told Fox News radio host Brian Kilmeade. “As far as other representatives, I don’t know. You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”
A White House official later said that Obama did not call Kelly but did not immediately respond to questions about whether the former president reached out in some other fashion.
A former spokesman for Obama, Ned Price, reacted angrily on Twitter. “Kelly, a man of honor & decency, should stop this inane cruelty,” Price tweeted. “He saw up-close just how much Obama cared for the fallen’s families.”
Trump had said in a news conference Monday he had written letters to the families of four soldiers killed in the Niger ambush and planned to call them, crediting himself with taking extra steps in honoring the dead properly. “Most of them didn’t make calls,” he said of his predecessors. He said it’s possible that Obama “did sometimes,” but “other presidents did not call.”
Trump’s suggestion that his predecessors fell short in that duty brought a visceral reaction from those who witnessed those grieving encounters.
“He’s a deranged animal,” Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former deputy chief of staff to Obama, tweeted about Trump on Monday. With an expletive, she called Trump’s statement in the Rose Garden a lie.
The record is plain that presidents reached out to families of the dead and to the wounded, often with their presence as well as by letter and phone. The path to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other military hospitals, as well as to the Dover, Delaware, Air Force Base where the remains of fallen soldiers are often brought, was a familiar one to Obama, George W. Bush and others.
Bush, even at the height of two wars, “wrote all the families of the fallen,” said Freddy Ford, spokesman for the former president. Ford said Bush also called or met “hundreds, if not thousands” of family members of the war dead.
Retired Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed those contacts, tweeting: “POTUS 43 & 44 and first ladies cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust.”
Richard and Sharon Hamill’s son, 31-year-old Army Capt. Jason R. Hamill, of Salem, Connecticut, was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2006. Sharon Hamill said that when Bush addressed Coast Guard Academy graduates in New London, Connecticut, in 2007, he also met individually with each of 10 Gold Star families in the area.
“He seemed very compassionate toward everyone,” she said. “I think it helped all of us.”
The White House said letters would go out and calls would be made to the families of the slain soldiers in Niger on Tuesday. The family of Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, one of the soldiers, was told by an Army casualty assistance officer to expect a phone call from Trump by Tuesday evening, said Will Wright, the soldier’s brother.
“He asked if the family would like to be contacted and if we’d be available to speak with the president,” Will Wright said from Lyons, Georgia, where funeral services for his brother were held Sunday. “My mother and father said yes.”
The soldier’s family in rural southeast Georgia has received “immeasurable support from the administration” and the military since he was killed Oct. 4, Will Wright said. He added that it would be “a great honor” to hear from Trump personally.
Trump addressed the matter when asked why he had not spoken about the four soldiers killed in Niger. They died when militants thought to be affiliated with the Islamic State group ambushed them while they were patrolling in unarmored trucks with Nigerien troops.
“I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we’re talking about, and they’re going to be going out either today or tomorrow,” he said, meaning he wrote to the families of the fallen soldiers.
“If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later that Trump “wasn’t criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact.” She said that presidents didn’t always call families of those killed in battle: “Sometimes they call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person.”
Bush’s commitment to writing to all military families of the dead and to reaching out by phone or meeting with many others came despite the enormity of the task. In the Iraq war alone, U.S. combat deaths were highest during his presidency, exceeding 800 each year from 2004 through 2007. The number fell to 313 in Bush’s last year in office as the insurgency faded. Bush once said he felt the appropriate way to show his respect was to meet family members in private.
Obama declared an end to combat operations in Iraq in August 2010 and the last U.S. troops were withdrawn in December 2011. As Obama wound down that war, he sent tens of thousands more troops into Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, and the death count mounted. From a total of 155 Americans killed in Afghanistan in 2008, which was Bush’s last full year in office, the number jumped to 311 in 2009 and peaked the next year at 498. In all, more than 1,700 died in Afghanistan on Obama’s watch.
Trump visited Dover early in his presidency, going in February with his daughter Ivanka for the return of the remains of a U.S. Navy SEAL killed during a raid in Yemen, William “Ryan” Owens.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Trump’s comments about his predecessors weren’t “particularly helpful.”
“No doubt in my mind that President Obama suffered when people died on his watch,” he said.