WASHINGTON — President Trump falsely asserted on Monday that his predecessor, Barack Obama, and other presidents did not contact the families of American troops killed in duty, drawing a swift, angry rebuke from several of Obama’s former aides.
Trump was responding to a question about why he had not spoken publicly about the killing of four US Green Berets in an ambush in Niger two weeks ago when he made the assertion. Rather than answering the reporter’s question, Trump said he had written personal letters to their families and planned to call them in the coming week. Then he pivoted to his predecessors.
“If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said during a news conference in the Rose Garden with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. “A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate.”
Trump’s assertion belied a long record of meetings Obama held with the families of killed service people, as well as calls and letters, dating to the earliest days of his presidency. Before he decided to deploy 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Obama regularly traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the arrival of the caskets of service members.
Obama’s former staff members lashed out at Trump’s remarks Monday with unusual bitterness.
“This is an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to Obama, posted on Twitter. “Also,” Rhodes added, “Obama never attacked a Gold Star family.”
That reference was to the public feud Trump began with the parents of a Muslim-American soldier, Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004. The soldier’s parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, appeared at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, where Khan criticized Trump.
Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former senior aide to Obama, used even stronger language on Twitter, calling Trump’s statement a lie — along with an expletive — and describing him as a “deranged animal.”
A spokesman for Obama declined to comment.
Several former Obama administration officials recalled the former president’s walks through Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery, where the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, his visits to the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the time he spent with families of the fallen at the White House and around the country.
In August 2011, after a Chinook military helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan, killing 38 people, including 25 Special Forces troops, Obama consoled the families of all of those killed, according to Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who attended the ceremony.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, said, “I don’t recall anything moving him more. He saw it as his duty to console them as best he could and thank them on behalf of the nation.”
But several officials said it was not always realistic to expect presidents to call the families of every fallen soldier. During the peak years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama and former President George W. Bush faced hundreds of fatalities each year.
In 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, there were 317 US military fatalities in Afghanistan and 149 in Iraq. So far this year, there have been 11 fatalities in Afghanistan and 14 in Iraq. Seventeen sailors were killed in accidents involving two Navy warships.
In the Niger episode, three US soldiers were killed while on patrol on the border between Niger and Mali this month. The body of a fourth US soldier was recovered later.
“President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn’t,” Trump continued. “That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals.”