Trump says Obama didn't contact families of fallen soldiers

President Donald Trump was responding to a question about why he had not spoken publicly about the killing of four US Green Berets in an ambush in Niger two weeks ago when he made the assertion.
President Donald Trump was responding to a question about why he had not spoken publicly about the killing of four US Green Berets in an ambush in Niger two weeks ago when he made the assertion.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump falsely asserted on Monday (Oct 16) that his predecessor, Barack Obama, and other presidents did not contact the families of American troops killed in duty, drawing a swift, angry rebuke from several of Obama's former aides.

Trump was responding to a question about why he had not spoken publicly about the killing of four US Green Berets in an ambush in Niger two weeks ago when he made the assertion. Rather than answering the reporter's question, Trump said he had written personal letters to their families and planned to call them in the coming week. Then he pivoted to his predecessors.

"If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls," Trump said during a news conference in the Rose Garden with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

"A lot of them didn't make calls. I like to call when it's appropriate."

Trump's assertion belied a long record of meetings Obama held with the families of killed service people, as well as calls and letters, dating to the earliest days of his presidency.

Before he decided to deploy 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Obama regularly travelled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to greet the caskets of service members.

While Obama's former staff members have grown used to Trump's jibes about the "failure" of the Affordable Care Act or the "disastrous" Iran nuclear deal, they lashed out at his remarks Monday with unusual bitterness.

"This is an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards," Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to Obama, posted on Twitter. "Also," Rhodes added, "Obama never attacked a Gold Star family."

That reference was to the public feud Trump began with the parents of a Muslim-American soldier, Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004. The soldier's parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, appeared at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, where Khan criticised Trump.

Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former senior aide to Obama, used even stronger language on Twitter, calling Trump's statement a lie - along with an expletive - and describing him as a "deranged animal". A spokesman for Obama declined to comment.

Several former Obama administration officials recalled the former president's walks through Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery, where the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, his visits to the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, and the time he spent with families of the fallen at the White House and around the country.

In August 2011, after a Chinook military helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan, killing 38 people, including 25 Special Forces troops, Obama consoled the families of all of those killed, according to Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff to Defence Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who attended the ceremony.

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, said, "I don't recall anything moving him more. He saw it as his duty to console them as best he could and thank them on behalf of the nation."

But several officials said it was not always realistic to expect presidents to call the families of every fallen soldier. During the peak years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama and former President George W. Bush faced hundreds of fatalities each year.

In 2009, the first year of Obama's presidency, there were 317 US military fatalities in Afghanistan and 149 in Iraq. So far this year, there have been 11 fatalities in Afghanistan and 14 in Iraq. Seventeen sailors were killed in accidents involving two Navy warships, the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald.

In the Niger episode, three US soldiers were killed while on patrol on the border between Niger and Mali this month. The body of a fourth US soldier was recovered later.

While he did not explain why he had not called their families, Trump said he had written letters to the family members over the weekend, which he said would be mailed later in the day or on Tuesday. He said he also planned to call them.

"I felt very, very badly about that," he said. "The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens. Soldiers are killed. It's a very difficult thing." He added:"Now it gets to the 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."

A senior official said Trump had planned to speak sooner to the families, but the White House had to wait until the Pentagon's paperwork was completed.

Pentagon officials said the military's Africa Command was putting together a detailed timeline of the attack and of the response by French helicopters that first provided air cover for the badly outnumbered US and Nigerian forces, and eventually medical evacuation. There has been a growing chorus for a review of the circumstances leading to the ambush.

After he answered the question about his response to the attack, Trump was pressed later in the news conference about his claim that Obama had never called bereaved families. This time, he seemed to soften his tone.

"I don't know if he did," the president said. "I was told he didn't often, and a lot of presidents don't. They write letters." "President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn't," Trump continued. "That's what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals."