President Donald Trump was adamant Tuesday that he’s called the family of every fallen service member. | Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
President Donald Trump on Tuesday invoked the death of the son of his chief of staff, John Kelly, as he defended his claim from a day before that Barack Obama and other past presidents didn’t always call the families of slain service members.
“For the most part, to the best of my knowledge, I think I’ve called every family of somebody that’s died, and it’s the hardest call to make, and I said it very loud and clear yesterday. The hardest thing for me to do is do that,” Trump said Tuesday morning during an interview with Fox News radio host Brian Kilmeade.
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“Now, as far as other representatives, I don’t know,” he continued. “I mean, you could ask General Kelly did he get a call from Obama. You could ask other people. I don’t know what Obama’s policy was. I write letters, and I also call.”
A White House official said Kelly didn’t receive a call from Obama after his son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, died in Afghanistan in November 2010 when he stepped on a land mine.
Obama did, however, host a breakfast in May 2011 for Gold Star families. And Kelly and his wife attended and sat at the table of first lady Michelle Obama, a source familiar with the event said.
“President Obama engaged families of the fallen and wounded warriors throughout his presidency through calls, letters, visits to [Arlington Cemetery], visits to Walter Reed, visits to Dover, and regular meetings with Gold Star families at the White House and across the country,” a former White House official said.
Trump has faced an onslaught of criticism — most notably from former Obama aides — since making the accusation against Obama on Monday afternoon in a Rose Garden news conference when asked about his silence regarding the death of four Green Berets related to an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.
“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” the president alleged without evidence Monday. “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.”
He said he was “told” that Obama didn’t always make calls but doesn’t know for sure. “All I can do is ask my generals,” he added Monday. “Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. And some presidents didn’t do anything.”
Obama’s former aides chafed at the comment. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, called the president’s claim “an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards” and noted on Twitter that it was Trump, not Obama, who attacked a Gold Star family that had been critical of him.
Alyssa Mastromonaco, Obama’s former deputy chief of staff of operations, was even more direct, tweeting, “that’s a f—— lie. to say president obama (or past presidents) didn’t call the family members of soldiers KIA – he’s a deranged animal.”
Trump, however, said Tuesday that he doesn’t feel a need to clarify his remarks.
“There’s nothing to clarify,” he said, blaming CNN for first broaching the subject at his news conference. “This was, again, fake news CNN. I mean, they’re just a bunch of fakers.”
In an apparent attempt to clean up the president’s comments, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that Trump “wasn’t criticizing his predecessors, but stating a fact,” and insisted that past presidents never “called each family of the fallen” because they sometimes sent letters or met with them in person in lieu of phone calls.
“I think what the president was saying is that there are many different ways to reach out to these families,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway explained Tuesday in an interview with Fox News. “The president, I think, made very clear there what he meant and what he was saying.”
Trump was adamant Tuesday that he’s prioritized calling the family of every fallen service member.
“It’s very difficult to be able to do that, but I have called, I believe, everybody. But certainly I’ll use the word ‘virtually’ everybody, where during the last nine months something’s happened to a soldier I’ve called virtually everybody,” the president said. “I’ve gone to Dover [Air Force Base]. I’ve seen what takes place at Dover. It’s an incredible scene and very, very sad — one of the saddest things you’ll ever see.”
He cautioned, however, that he speaks for himself, not past presidents. “I don’t know what Bush did. I don’t know what Obama did,” he conceded. “You could find out easily what President Obama did. All you have to do is ask the military people. But I believe his policy was somewhat different than my policy.”
Trump said his policy is to call the family of every fallen soldier, though his rhetoric Monday suggested he only calls “when it’s appropriate” and “when I think I’m able to do it.”
“You have to let a little time go by. You can’t just call immediately,” he said, explaining why he has yet to reach out to the families of those killed in the Niger ambush. “But I will be calling, have called and will be calling the parents and the loved ones, wives, etc., of the soldiers that recently were killed.”
Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.