The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump reaches out to families of U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Cullman, Ala. on Aug. 21.
Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Cullman, Ala. on Aug. 21. (Marvin Gentry/Reuters)

When Darin Hoover traveled to Dover Air Force Base to receive the casket of his 31-year-old Marine son, who was killed in Afghanistan, he, like several other families, declined an offer to meet with President Biden.

But out of the blue last week his cellphone rang, and he instantly recognized the voice on the other line: Donald Trump.

“It was just very cordial, very understanding. He was awesome,” Hoover said, recalling the conversation. “He was just talking about the finest of the finest. He said he heard and saw everything that we had said, and he offered his condolences several times, and how sorry he was.”

The past two weeks have put on display not only a nation divided about a 20-year war and its messy withdrawal but also a nation whose politics do not allow it to grieve together. Some families opted to not meet with or hear from Biden at all, while others have been publicly critical of him and have resisted having any further dialogue with the president.

The Post's White House team discusses what was really going on inside the White House as President Biden attempted to end America's 20-year war in Afghanistan. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, Trump has placed several calls over the past week to some family members of the 13 service members killed in an Islamic State-Khorasan terrorist attack during the withdrawal. Several have invited him to attend the funerals, and he has suggested he may try to do so.

Trump and his allies have seen the calamitous end to the war in Afghanistan as a potent political opportunity as he weighs a potential 2024 reelection bid — even though Trump himself advocated for the withdrawal, negotiated with the Taliban before leaving office and urged Biden to leave even sooner.

As Biden plans to attend several solemn ceremonies Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Trump has not announced any plans to attend memorial events, though an adviser said he may attend one in Manhattan. That evening, he is slated to provide color commentary for a pay-per-view heavyweight boxing match at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla.

Trump has criticized the way the Afghanistan withdrawal was handled, telling at least one family that he did not understand why Biden pulled the military out of the country before getting all the civilians out, according to people familiar with the calls who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose details of private discussions.

‘Don’t you ever forget that name’: Biden’s tough meeting with grieving relatives of slain service members

Trump has been briefed recently by former officials, including former CIA director and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, about what he did in Afghanistan as president and what they viewed as missteps by the Biden administration, advisers said. One of the briefings was arranged before Trump went on Sean Hannity’s show, an adviser said, and three advisers described him as more interested in granular details of the withdrawal than he usually is.

The former president and his team have issued more than 50 statements about Afghanistan, and his PAC has raised millions with repeated fundraising pitches on the topic. In one pitch, titled “Let’s Raise Another $1,500,000,” he says, “Just look at what’s happening in Afghanistan.”

“It is really the only topic I’ve seen him animated about other than the election,” said one adviser, describing Trump’s nonstop commentary in private about the pullout.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), an ally of Trump’s who disagreed with his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, said: “I told him, I think this and the border are going to be one-two punches for Biden. He agreed and is just surprised that Biden let it get this much out of hand.”

Trump is also showing signs of recalibrating his decisions after the withdrawal, some allies said.

“It’s almost certain he runs. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t,” Graham said. “I thought he would wait until after the midterms, but now I’m not so sure. I think Afghanistan has a lot to do with it. Before Afghanistan, I would have said the chance of him announcing before the midterm was almost zero. Now I’m not so sure.”

“He wants to get back into the game now quicker,” he added. “He sees things deteriorating and it is changing his thinking.”

Trump’s sense of empathy and ability to honor fallen soldiers often came under scrutiny. He repeatedly criticized Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), saying he was not a war hero. “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said in 2015 about McCain, who spent five years in captivity in Vietnam. McCain died in 2018.

In October 2017, Trump falsely claimed that he had spoken with nearly every military family that had lost a loved one since he became commander in chief. And three months after offering to pay the father of a fallen U.S. soldier $25,000, Trump wrote a personal check on the same day that The Washington Post asked about his pledge.

Several Gold Star families also criticized Trump, saying his calls to them only made them feel worse. Myeshia Johnson said in 2017 that she was upset over Trump’s tone and confusion over the name of her husband, Army Sgt. La David Johnson.

“ ‘He knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways,’ ” she recalled Trump telling her. “It made me cry, because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name.”

While Biden has often been able to connect with grieving families, in part by channeling the tragedies in his own life, he has been criticized over the past two weeks as he has tried to reach out to families that hold him directly responsible for the death of their loved ones.

There has been a significant difference in how Biden and Trump have handled criticism from Gold Star families. Trump in the past would amplify his own attacks. White House officials, who declined to comment, have generally said that it is the right of grieving family members to speak publicly about their experiences.

White House officials have also closely tracked comments from Trump — who advocated for an earlier withdrawal — and view his criticisms as hypocritical.

A spokesman for Trump said that the former president would have overseen a “dignified withdrawal.”

“Like most Americans, President Trump holds Biden accountable for this historic and truly unprecedented failure, and President Trump will continue to speak out when the interests of America are not being protected,” said the spokesman, Taylor Budowich.

Family members of at least six of the 13 U.S. service members killed in the Aug. 26 attack in Kabul have been publicly critical of Biden. Some declined to meet with Biden when he attempted to console them as the bodies arrived at Dover Air Force Base. Some of those who did said they were put off by the amount of time Biden spent talking about his son Beau, who served in Iraq and later died of brain cancer.

Biden struggles to address the most volatile crisis of his presidency

Mark Schmitz, whose son, Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, 20, was among the Marines killed, described a tense meeting with Biden earlier and confirmed that he spoke with Trump last week. He said that he was grateful for the call and that he got “much more satisfaction or a sense of compassion” speaking with Trump than he did with Biden, but he declined to comment further.

Several have gone on Fox News to express their dismay, and some considered Biden an illegitimate president even before his decisions resulted in the deaths of their loved ones. Trump has spoken to multiple family members, according to advisers.

Kathy McCollum, whose son, Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, 20, died in the attack, called into a radio show and said of Biden, “That feckless, dementia-ridden piece of crap just sent my son to die.” Rylee McCollum’s sister Roice, who declined to meet with Biden, said that she was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the date of the insurrection by Trump supporters, but declined to elaborate.

Trump has issued several statements thanking Shana Chappell, the mother of Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, 20, who was killed in the attack.

“If I were President, your wonderful and beautiful son Kareem would be with you now, and so would the sons and daughters of others,” he said last week.

Chappell recounted meeting with Biden at Dover, with him attempting to console her and her telling him he had no idea how she felt. At one point, by her account, Biden grew visibly annoyed and began walking away.

“You are not the president of the United States of America Biden!!!! Cheating isn’t winning!!!” she wrote on Facebook. “You are no leader of any kind! You are a weak human being and a traitor!!!!”

She later wrote that the day after burying her son, she plans to drive her blue Toyota Tundra from Norco, Calif., to the White House to demand Biden’s resignation. She encouraged others to join.

“It’s a long drive but worth it!” she wrote. “It’s time the Lions awaken and show their numbers, it’s time we take back our country! If we don’t fight to save our country then nobody will and she will fall!”

She also said that she hopes Trump will come to her son’s funeral later this month.

Biden’s promise to restore competence to the presidency is undercut by chaos in Afghanistan

Richard Herrera, whose daughter, Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23, died in the attack, said he had no interest in hearing from Biden.

“He’s not invited to the funeral. If he comes, I won’t let him in the door,” Herrera said. “I don’t even really want to talk to anyone in his administration. There’s blood on his hands. I’m trying to keep it not political, but I can’t. You can’t not do that. It’s what got my daughter killed.”

Paula Knauss, mother of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23, said she was angry at Biden, faulting his decision-making for the chaos during the withdrawal that was plain to her as she watched it unfold on television.

“I’m not trying to play a political game here. We’re talking about the lives of men and women in the service,” she said. “My son is already resting in peace, but there are more men and women in uniform that still have to be under the authority of our president. What did he learn from his mistakes? Who will be accountable for those mistakes? Will he stand up to America and say, ‘I messed up, I made bad decisions’?”

She said she has not received a phone call from Biden or Trump.

“I will definitely be more involved and making sure the people in uniform have a voice with the American public and make sure our leaders are held accountable for their actions and their words,” she said.

“My anger burns now and forever more on people who make poor decisions that cost American lives,” she added. “I don’t care what side of the ring they stand on — good decision-making must be made by our leaders.”

Darin Hoover said his family is in the process of obtaining permissions to bury their son, Marine Staff Sgt. Darin Taylor Hoover, in Arlington National Cemetery. In the call with Trump, he said, they invited him to attend the funeral when they could set a date. “He said he would if he could,” Hoover said.

Asked about why he opted not to meet with the current president while being comforted by a former one, he said: “I really don’t want to get into the political aspect of it. This is about our son. This is all about the sacrifice that our sons and daughters gave.”

“We felt that was what Taylor would have wanted,” he added.

Annie Linskey contributed to this report.