“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 am able to do it.”
—President Trump, news conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Oct. 16, 2017
President Trump had an unusually long news conference in the Rose Garden and he was called out by a reporter for this statement, in which he claimed that Barack Obama did not call the families of fallen troops when Obama was president. Trump made this claim while explaining why he had not yet made a statement about the four U.S. Special Forces members who died on Oct. 4 in Niger during a deadly ambush by dozens of Islamist extremists.
Trump said that letters were drafted over the weekend for the families and would be “going out either today or tomorrow.” He also said he planned to make phone calls, unlike Obama. But when questioned about this, he then quickly backtracked: “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals.”
So, did Obama place calls to the families of troops who died in combat?
From our perusal of news reports and news databases, we could not find any contemporaneous evidence that Obama spoke about such calls or that the White House announced he had called families.
Generally, of course, this is not something the White House would necessarily talk about.
However, there is plenty of evidence that Obama met with families of fallen service members. In 2011, he flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when 30 troops — including 22 Navy SEALs — died after their helicopter was hit by a rocket in Afghanistan. He met with the families there as the remains were brought home.
Only a month earlier, Leon Panetta had been named defense secretary. He was there with Obama on the tarmac in Dover. In an interview with The Fact Checker, Panetta recalled that Obama also “made calls to some of the families” involved in the helicopter crash. He said he was also told by staff of other occasions when Obama contacted families.
He added: “I never had anyone express concern about the president not contacting families.”
Still, in early 2011, the family of one fallen soldier, Sgt. Sean Collins, told Fox News they had requested a call from Obama and were told his schedule was too packed for a conversation. (Note: At that point, about 1,000 troops had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan under Obama’s watch. So far in 2017, 25 troops have been killed in those countries.)
Generally, former Obama aides said, the president wrote letters or made base visits in which he met with families. “I remember he did on occasion make calls and met Gold Star families at the White House and on his base visits,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a national security aide to Obama.
Sharon Belkofer, a Gold Star mother whose son died in 2010 in Afghanistan, told the Democratic National Convention in 2016 that she met Obama at Fort Drum, where “I cried all over his suit.” She met him again a year later and was inspired to run for school board at age 73. After she won, “the president even sent me a handwritten note of congratulations,” she said.
Panetta faulted Trump for appearing to try to explain away poor staff work. As a former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, Panetta said: “I suspect some staff members did not get letters [about Niger] to the president as quickly as possible.”
“The president wasn’t criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “When American heroes make the ultimate sacrifice, presidents pay their respects. Sometimes they call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person.”
Obama’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Given that Trump more or less took back his claim in real time, we will not rate this statement. But Trump, as is his style, was too quick to charge that Obama had not made phone calls. Perhaps he was influenced by the Fox News report in 2011, or perhaps he received some bum information. But generally one would not expect a president or a White House to announce that such a painful and difficult call had been made.
Scenes from Trump’s second six months in office
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