Four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed earlier this month while on patrol in Niger. President Trump’s silence on their deaths has been notable, with 10 days having passed without any comment from the White House — 10 days during which Trump visited his golf club in Sterling, Va., five times.
During an impromptu news conference in the White House Rose Garden on Monday afternoon, Trump was asked why he hadn’t yet made a public comment on the fatalities.
“I’ve written [the soldiers’ families] personal letters,” Trump replied. “They’ve been sent — or they’re going out tonight but they were written during the weekend.”
“I will at some point during the period of time call the parents and the families because I have done that traditionally. I felt very, very badly about that; I always feel bad. The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens, soldiers are killed. It’s a very difficult thing. Now, it gets to a 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.”
“So, the traditional way, 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’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally I would say that I like to call. I’m going to be calling them — I want a little time to pass — I’m going to be calling them. I have, as you know, since I’ve been president I have. But in addition I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we’re talking about and they’re going to be going out either today or tomorrow.”
These comments were immediately criticized by veterans of the Obama administration and members of the media who had covered it.
“That’s a f—ing lie,” replied Alyssa Mastromonaco on Twitter. Mastromonaco served as deputy chief of staff for operations under Trump’s predecessor. “To say President Obama (or past presidents) didn’t call the family members of soldiers” killed in action suggested, she said, that Trump was a “deranged animal.”
In late 2010, the family of a soldier who was killed in action reached out to the White House and was apparently told by someone there that “Obama did not regularly make phone calls to the families of fallen soldiers.” The story got a decent amount of attention in the conservative media.
So, too, did an allegation that Obama’s letters to the families of those killed in action were signed with an auto-pen, a mechanical device that allows for the rapid signing of multiple documents. That rumor got picked up by Trump himself, who repeated it on Twitter.
Those letters did appear to have been form letters, though ABC notes that George W. Bush used form letters, too. A 2009 Washington Times story explained how, at that point, Obama hand-wrote notes to family members of those killed, notes which were later typed up and signed.
Trump’s allegation that Obama hadn’t made calls was the subject of another question later in the news conference. “How can you make that claim?” NBC News’s Peter Alexander asked about Trump’s phone-call assertion.
The president admitted that Obama may very well have made calls after all.
“I don’t know if he did. No, no, no. I was told that he didn’t often,” Trump replied. “A lot of presidents don’t; they write letters. I do a combination of both. Sometimes — it’s a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both. 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. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. And some presidents didn’t do anything. But I like, I like the combination of — I like, when I can, the combination of a call and also a letter.”
Former Obama staffer Dan Pfeiffer: “Now he’s lying about his own lie.”
Trump’s gambit with his initial assertion is made pretty clear with his description of a call and a letter as being “a very difficult thing to do” during his second response.
In order to make the gap between the soldiers’ deaths and his writing letters or calling the families seem less egregious, he suggests that those calls are particularly difficult, claiming that his predecessors avoided them as a result. Trump may be acting later than anticipated, but he wants people to think that’s made up for by doing more than anticipated. To have it be more than anticipated, he claims that calling those families is an unusual effort that he will undertake. When it’s noted that this isn’t actually unusual, he then suggests that what was unusual and abnormally difficult was the combination of a call and a letter.
Why not do it right away? He’s got an answer for that, too: He “want[ed] a little time to pass.”
Some of the time that will pass will be in when the letters were sent. First, they had been sent; then they were sent or being sent this evening; and, finally, they were sent or being sent this evening or tomorrow.
He didn’t indicate when he’d be making the calls.