Retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015, said in a tweet that Obama and President George W. Bush “and first ladies cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families,” adding: “Not politics. Sacred Trust.”
Trump sparked the controversy with a casual comment in a disjointed news conference Monday in the Rose Garden.
When asked by a reporter why he had not spoken publicly about the four U.S. Special Forces members who were killed in an ambush in Niger nearly two weeks ago, Trump responded that he was going to send their families letters, which were drafted over the weekend, and he justified his behavior by referring to the practices of other presidents.
“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,” he said. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker judged his description “false.”
Though he later seemed to take back the claim, saying that Obama “probably did” write letters “sometimes,” there was an immediate reaction that intensified through the night.
Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser, called the statement “an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards.”
“Also: Obama never attacked a Gold Star family,” Rhodes added, likely referring to Trump’s lashing out at Khizr Khan, the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. Khan criticized Trump at the Democratic National Convention last year.
Several people tweeted a piece written by Dana Perino, who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary, recalling a day when Bush visited wounded service members at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and “meekly accepted the rage of a grieving mother,” as David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, tweeted.
“When my brother was killed, Pres Bush listened while I screamed at him & then held me as I sobbed,” tweeted a user named Delilia O’Malley.
Enough other people tweeted stories, videos and photographs of former presidents comforting grieving families that the social media platform curated them into a Twitter Moment.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said Trump “wasn’t criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact. 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.”
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, second from right, pose for photographs with the University of Utah ski team during an event with NCAA championship teams at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Scenes from Trump?s second six months in office