WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has pulled bereaved military families into a painful political fight of his own making, going so far Tuesday as to cite the death of his chief of staff’s son in Afghanistan to question whether Barack Obama and other presidents did enough to honor the military dead.
He’s boasted that “I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died,” though The Associated Press found relatives of two soldiers who died overseas during Trump’s presidency who said they never received a call or a letter from him, as well as relatives of a third who did not get a call from him.
The White House said Trump did telephone on Tuesday the families of four soldiers who were killed in Niger nearly two weeks ago, the issue that spawned the controversy this week.
“He offered condolences on behalf of a grateful nation and assured them their family’s extraordinary sacrifice to the country will never be forgotten,” said a White House statement.
Contending that Trump’s propensity for a political fight has drifted into “sacred” territory, Democrats and some former government officials have expressed anger at his comments that he, almost alone among presidents, called the families of military members killed in war. They accused him of “inane cruelty” and a “sick game.”
A report in The New York Post said Trump had told the family of army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger, that the soldier “knew what he signed up for . . . but when it happens it hurts anyway” during a phone call Tuesday.
“They were astonished,” the Post quoted Rep. Frederica Wilson as saying. “It was almost like saying, ‘You signed up to do this, and if you didn’t want to die, shouldn’t have signed up.’ ”
Wilson, a Democrat from Florida, said the soldier’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, spoke with Trump for about 3-5 minutes and her only words were “thank you” at the end of the conversation.
For their part, Gold Star families, which have lost members in wartime, told the AP of acts of intimate kindness from two presidents — Obama and George W. Bush — when those commanders in chief consoled them.
Trump’s posture has been defensive in recent days after he was criticized for not reaching out right away to relatives of the soldiers killed in Niger.
On Monday, Trump said he’d written letters that hadn’t yet been mailed; his aides they had been awaiting information on the soldiers before proceeding.
Then Trump stirred things further Tuesday on Fox News Radio, saying, “You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”
John Kelly, a marine general under Obama, is Trump’s chief of staff. His son, marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. John Kelly was not seen at Trump’s public events Tuesday.
A White House official said Obama did not call Kelly after his son’s death but did not say whether the former president reached out in some other fashion. White House visitor records show Kelly attended a breakfast Obama hosted for Gold Star families six months after his son died. A person familiar with the breakfast — speaking on condition of anonymity because the event was private — said the Kelly family sat at Michelle Obama’s table.
Obama aides said it is difficult this many years later to determine if he had also called Kelly, or when.
Former Obama spokesman Ned Price tweeted: “Kelly, a man of honor & decency, should stop this inane cruelty. He saw up-close just how — & how much — Obama cared for the fallen’s families.”
Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, an Iraq veteran who lost both legs when her helicopter was attacked, said Obama did right by the fallen.
“I just wish that this commander in chief would stop using Gold Star families as pawns in whatever sick game he’s trying to play here,” she said.
And retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, once chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tweeted that Bush, Obama and their wives “cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust.”
Trump initially claimed, in a news conference Monday, that only he among presidents made sure to call families. Obama may have done so on occasion, he said, but “other presidents did not call.”
He equivocated Tuesday as the record made plain that his characterization was false. “I don’t know,” he said of past calls. But he said his own practice was to call all families of the war dead.
But that hasn’t happened:
Army Spc. Christopher Michael Harris, 25, of Jackson Springs, North Carolina, was killed along with another soldier in a suicide attack in Afghanistan in August.
His widow, Brittany Harris, said the White House did offer to set up a call with Trump but “it fell through” and no letter came from the president. She figured Trump was too busy with the approach of Hurricane Harvey and North Korea woes. The family, though, saw Vice President Mike Pence at Dover Air Force Base, where they went to receive Michael’s remains, and found Pence’s words comforting.
Now 17 weeks pregnant, Brittany Harris said she’s had an outpouring of support from the Pentagon and others in government, handwritten notes from Defense Secretary James Mattis and many others. “Everybody treats me like gold, salutes me, takes off their hats for me,” she said.
Army Spc. Etienne J. Murphy, 22, of Snellville in metropolitan Atlanta, died May 26 after an armored vehicle he was in rolled over in Syria. No letter or phone call came from Trump to the parents or his widow.
“Because it was non-combat, I feel like maybe he thought it was an accident, it doesn’t matter,” said Sheila Murphy, his mother. “But my son was in Syria.”
She said the army casualty assistance officer assigned to her family told her a letter would be coming from the White House. Nearly five months later, she said, no letter has arrived. She said she finally wrote a letter to Trump about six weeks ago, to tell him she and her husband still suffer from deep grief, but there’s been no reply.
“It wasn’t a mean letter,” she said. “I was telling him I know he’s a grandfather. I told him I’m trying to be here for my grandkids, but some days I don’t want to live.”
Aaron Butler, a 27-year-old guardsman from Monticello, Utah, was killed Aug. 16 at a booby-trapped building in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. His mother, Laura Butler, and family spokesman Bill Boyle say Trump has not called. Many other officials have.
Boyle said the family has no expectation of a call from the president and appreciates the “intense support” from the White House.
“The family is very careful that they do not want to be pulled into a partisan slugfest,” Boyle said. “He would be very upset if his name or his death or his sacrifice was used as a tool to divide the country, and they’re fearful that this could happen.”
No White House protocol demands that presidents speak or meet with the families of Americans killed in action — an impossible task in a war’s bloodiest stages. But they often do.
Altogether some 6,900 Americans have been killed in overseas wars since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the overwhelming majority under Bush and Obama. Since Trump took office in January, about two dozen U.S. service members have been killed.
Despite the much heavier toll on his watch — more than 800 dead each year from 2004 through 2007 — Bush wrote to all bereaved military families and met or spoke with hundreds, if not thousands, said his spokesman, Freddy Ford.
Judy Parker lost a son, army Spc. William Evans, 22, in a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005 and said the first time she saw her younger son cry over his brother’s death was in Bush’s arms.
“He took my son who was just 21 and held him and let him cry,” she said. Bush “said he didn’t know what he would do if it was his child.”
Parker, who now lives in Chenango Forks, New York, said she voted for Trump and wishes he would quit tweeting “and get to work.”
Veterans groups said they had no quarrel with how presidents have recognized the fallen or their families.
“I don’t think there is any president I know of who hasn’t called families,” said Rick Weidman, co-founder and executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America. “President Obama called often and President Bush called often. They also made regular visits to Walter Reed and Bethesda Medical Center, going in the evenings and on Saturdays.”