Timeline: How the Trump administration responded to the Niger attack
Lawmakers are pressing the Trump administration over the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger earlier this month, questioning the United States’s presence in the African nation and American support for troops stationed in the region.
The Pentagon and White House have faced questions over the Oct. 4 incident after it was revealed that the body of one of the soldiers killed in the ambush was recovered two days after the raid, with reports Friday indicating the soldier was recovered nearly a mile from the attack.
President Trump’s delayed public response to the ambush has also drawn questions, while comments he made in a press conference early this week defending his handling of calls to the families of fallen soldiers sparked backlash and a subsequent feud over his handling of one call to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger.
Here’s a timeline of the events stemming from the ambush in Niger earlier this month:
Oct. 4: Reports surface of a deadly ambush in Niger
Twelve U.S. special forces soldiers were on a joint patrol with 30 to 40 Nigerien soldiers near the border of Niger and Mali when they fell into “an ambush set by terrorist elements aboard a dozen vehicles and about twenty motorcycles,” according to the Nigerian army chief of staff.
It’s announced that three Army Green Berets were killed in action and two U.S. soldiers were wounded after “intense fighting.”
U.S. Africa Command said in a statement the following day that the Green Berets were assisting “Nigerien security force counterterror operations” when they were attacked.
No group initially claimed responsibility for the ambush.
Oct. 5: Pentagon confirms three US soldiers killed in attack
The Pentagon confirmed that three U.S. Army special operations troops were killed and two were wounded when they were ambushed in an attack suspected to be carried out by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-affiliated militants.
Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White said the incident occurred when the soldiers were conducting a security advise-and-assist mission in the southwestern portion of the country.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the fallen services members who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the freedoms we hold so dear,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the daily press briefing.
Oct. 6: Pentagon releases identities of soldiers killed
The Pentagon identified the three Army Green Berets killed as Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash.; Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Dustin Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga.
Oct. 6: Military announces fourth soldier killed in attack
Hours later, the Pentagon confirmed that a fourth U.S. soldier was killed in the raid.
“The body of another U.S. service member has been recovered from the area of the attack, bringing the number of U.S. service members killed in this attack to four,” Col. Robert Manning said in a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family members of the deceased. We will share more information as it becomes available related to this attack.”
Oct. 7: Fourth soldier identified
The Pentagon identified the fourth U.S. soldier killed in the ambush as Army Sgt. La David Johnson.
Johnson was initially listed as missing following the ambush. His body was recovered on Oct. 6, according to the Pentagon.
Oct. 11: Mattis disputes slow response
Reporters who are accompanying Defense Secretary James Mattis on a trip ask him about aid response time during the Niger attack. Mattis disputes that the response was slow and says officials will look into it.
Oct. 12: More details emerge
Defense Department officials reveal several more details of the ambush and say they believe a self-radicalized, ISIS-affiliated group was behind it.
Officials indicate the attack was unexpected as the unit “had actually done 29 patrols without contact over the previous six months,” Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie tells reporters.
Oct. 12: Pentagon pins blame on self-radicalized group for the attack
Pentagon officials announced they had reason to believe a self-radicalized, ISIS-affiliated group was behind the ambush.
“Clearly I think we believe probably some form of ISIS affiliation, the group that we’re talking about,” McKenzie told reporters.
“We’re still looking into specific details with them,” he added.
“[They’re] trying to go to other places, trying to find the cold corner of the world. While this particular instance is tragic, it’s also illustrative of the general success of the campaign,” he said.
Oct. 16: Trump claims his predecessors did not call families of fallen soldiers
Trump, who had faced criticism for not commenting soon enough on the attack, waded into controversy when asked about the four fallen soldiers, claiming his predecessors did not call the families of foreign soldiers.
“The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens — soldiers are killed,” Trump said at a White House press conference. “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.”
Reporters continued to press Trump on the claim and he said that he was “told” Obama didn’t often call the families of slain soldiers.
“And 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,” Trump said.
The comments immediately sparked backlash from aides to former President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who have both described the difficultly in making such calls.
However, the White House stood behind Trump’s comments, saying he was stating “fact.”
“The president wasn’t criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact,” Sanders said in a statement.
“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. This president, like his predecessors, has done each of these,” she said.
Oct. 17: Trump brings Kelly and his late son into the debate
The president continued to stir controversy when he said during an interview with Fox News Radio host Brian Kilmeade that the press should ask White House chief of staff John Kelly if former President Obama called him after his son died in Afghanistan.
“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,” Trump said.
“As far as other representatives, I don’t know, I mean you could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?” he said.
“I don’t know what Obama’s policy was,” he added. “I write letters, and I also call.”
Oct. 17: Lawmakers question administration’s response to the ambush
Meanwhile, questions began to surface on Capitol Hill about the ambush. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the Trump administration had not provided enough information on the attack.
“I had a better working relationship, as far as information back and forth, with Ash Carter than I do with an old friend of 20 years,” McCain said, referring to Defense Secretary James Mattis.
The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I) went as far as telling CNN on Tuesday that he did not think the administration had been forthcoming about the ambush.
“I think the administration has to be more clear about our role in Niger and our role in other areas in Africa and other parts of the globe,” Reed said.
“They have to connect it to a strategy. They should do that. I think that the inattention to this issue is not acceptable.”
Oct. 17: White House announces Trump spoke with families of slain soldiers in attack
The White House announced Trump had spoken with the families of the four fallen soldiers.
“President Trump spoke to all four of the families of those who were killed in action in Niger,” Sanders said in a statement.
“He offered condolences on behalf of a grateful nation and assured them their family’s extraordinary sacrifice to the country will never be forgotten,” she said.
Oct. 17: Dem lawmaker says Trump made insensitive remarks to soldier’s widow
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) revealed to various news outlets that she overheard Trump tell the widow of Johnson that her late husband “knew what he signed up for … but when it happens it hurts anyway.”
Wilson told CNN that she was in the car with Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, to meet the body in Miami when the president called her.
Wilson said she was close with Johnson’s family, hence her presence in the car.
“She has just lost her husband, she was just told that he cannot have an open casket funeral, which gives her all kinds of nightmares about what his body must look, what his face must look, and this is what the president of the United States says to her,” Wilson said.
Oct. 18: Trump pushes back on Wilson’s claim
Trump pushed back on Wilson’s claims that he made the remarks to Johnson’s widow, claiming Wilson fabricated the account of the call and that he had “proof” of his remarks.
Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
Wilson fired back at Trump, calling him a “sick man.”
“This man is a sick man. He’s cold hearted, and he feels no pity or sympathy for anyone,” Wilson told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on “New Day.”
“I’m not trying to prove anything with the president. So the president evidently is lying,” Wilson told CNN. “Because what I said is true. I have no reason to lie on the president of the United States with a dead soldier in my community. I have no time. I have no motive.”
Trump continued to double down on his denial that he made the comments to the widow.
“I didn’t say what that congresswoman said — didn’t say it at all — she knows it,” Trump told reporters. “I would like her to make the statement again because I did not say what she said.”
Oct. 18: White House defends Trump’s decision to invoke Kelly’s son
The White House defended Trump’s decision to invoke the death of Kelly’s son during an interview.
“I think that Gen. Kelly is disgusted by the way that this has been politicized and that the focus has become on the process and not the fact that American lives were lost,” Sanders said at the White House press briefing.
“I think he’s disgusted and frustrated by that,” she said. “If he has any anger, it’s toward that.”
Oct. 18: Report surfaces that White House drafted unsent statement on fallen soldiers
Politico reported that the National Security Council had drafted a statement for Trump that expressed condolences after the ambush, however, the letter was never delivered.
Oct. 18: White House blames protocol for delayed response to attack
The White House laid blame on protocol for the 12-day delay between the deaths of the four soldiers and Trump’s first public acknowledgement of them.
“The process begins with a [Defense Department] casualty assistance officer making next of kin notifications,” Sanders told reporters at the White House.
“After that, they create a package that’s sent to the White House Military Office … all of the details and the contents of the package have to be confirmed. Once that process is completed, the president or other members of the administration can engage in contact.”
Oct. 19: Pentagon confirms investigation into attack
Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed that the U.S. military had launched a formal investigation into the ambush amid increasing questions about the attack.
“The loss of our troops is under investigation,” Mattis told reporters. “We investigate any time we have our troops killed, whether it be in a training accident or combat.”
“These terrorists are conducting war on innocent people of all religions, they are conducting war on innocent people who have no way to defend themselves,” he continued.
“In this specific case, contact was considered unlikely, but there’s a reason we have U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps, because we carry guns.”
Oct. 19: McCain threatens subpoena
McCain threatened to use a subpoena to obtain more information about the ambush.
“It may require a subpoena,” McCain said.
The senator went on to say it’s not necessary to wait for the Defense Department to finish its investigation.
“That’s not how the system works. We’re coequal branches of government,” McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said. “We should be informed at all times.”
Oct. 19: Kelly publicly defends Trump’s call to widow
Kelly delivered a pointed, emotional defense of Trump’s call to Johnson’s widow and took aim at Wilson during a surprise appearance at the White House press briefing.
“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. I would have thought that was sacred,” Kelly said.
“He expressed his condolences in the best way that he could,” he said.
The retired four-star general also explained the process of returning the bodies of fallen U.S. soldiers to their families, as well as his own experience being informed about his own son’s death.
“He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,” Kelly remembered being told by his casualty officer, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent,” he added.
“He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war.”
Oct. 19: FBI joins probe into ambush
The FBI joined the investigation into the ambush. FBI officials told The Wall Street Journal that the bureau’s involvement was not unusual, and that it has the authority to take charge of the probe, but has not yet done so.
Oct. 20: Mattis meets with McCain
Mattis traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with McCain after the senator floated the possibility of using a subpoena to get answers from the Trump administration on the attack.
“We can do better at communication,” Mattis told reporters after the meeting. “We can always improve on communication, and that’s exactly what we’ll do.”
“The relationship that the secretary and I have goes back 20 years,” McCain said. “It’s one of respect, it’s one of appreciation and it’s one of honoring his service.”
“So we continue to try to improve our lines of communication, and our regular meetings will be very helpful in that area,” he added.
Oct. 20: Report says Johnson’s body found a mile away from scene of ambush
CNN reported that Johnson’s body was found nearly a mile away from the scene of the ambush.
Oct. 21: Congressional aide says ambush was a result of ‘massive intelligence failure’
NBC News reported that the ambush was partially the result of a “massive intelligence failure,” citing a senior congressional aide.
The unnamed aide said there was no overhead surveillance of the mission involving the 10 U.S. soldiers on patrol, and that there was no American quick-reaction force on hand to back the soldiers up in case they encountered a dangerous situation.
U.S. officials told NBC News that any conclusions regarding an intelligence failure were premature.
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