Trump faces blowback after claim about calls to families of the fallen

President Trump on Monday defended his delay in responding to the recent Army Green Beret deaths in Niger — and also claimed that former President Obama and other past presidents didn’t call the families of fallen soldiers.

Trump made the remark at an impromptu press conference in the White House Rose Garden after being asked why he had not yet addressed the four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger on Oct. 4.

The president said he had written personal letters to the families of the soldiers over the weekend and that they would be sent “either today or tomorrow.”

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He also said he planned to call the parents and families of those who were killed, something he said he has done “traditionally.”

“The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens — soldiers are killed,” Trump said.

“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,” he said.

“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,” he continued.

Trump's remarks were immediately criticized online, as Obama and other past presidents did make calls to the families of fallen soldiers.

Obama and former President George W. Bush have both described the difficultly in making those calls.

Several former aides of Obama weighed in immediately, with former White House deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco calling it a “f---ing lie” to say Obama and other past presidents hadn’t called the families of fallen soldiers.

“He’s a deranged animal,” she said of Trump in a tweet.

As the news conference continued, Trump was pressed on his claim, and said that he was “told” Obama didn't often call the families of slain soldiers.

“I don’t know if he did. I was told that he didn’t often, and a lot of presidents don’t, they write letters. I do a combination of both,” Trump said.

“President Obama, I think probably did [call] sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn’t, I don’t know, that’s what I was told,” he said.

Trump added that “all I can do is ask my generals.”

Later, in a statement reported by NBC News, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had merely said that past presidents didn’t always call the families of fallen soldiers.

“The president wasn’t criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact,” she said. “When Americans make the ultimate sacrifice, presidents pay their respects. Sometimes they call, sometimes they sent a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person."

“This president, like his predecessors, has done each of these. Individuals claiming former presidents, such as their bosses, called each family of the fallen, are mistaken,” Sanders said.

The White House comments seemed unlikely to satisfy those angered by Trump’s remarks.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said Trump’s statement was “an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards.”

He also raised the issue of Trump’s criticisms last year of Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen Muslim-American soldier named Humayun Khan, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Khizr Khan has repeatedly criticized Trump since his appearance at the convention led to a battle with the then-GOP candidate for the White House.

There is no long-held White House policy for contacting the families of fallen service members, but for the past several decades, presidents have sent a letter to the families of those killed in combat or accidents while deployed.

President George W. Bush typically sent form letters to families of troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, changing only the salutation and reference to the soldier killed.

The Obama White House also used form letters, though Obama said he had personally signed each one. He also made calls to families of slain U.S. service members.

The White House did not respond by press time to questions about whether the administration had a specific policy on contacting families of fallen soldiers. 

“Other presidents did not call, they’d write letters, and some presidents didn’t do anything, but I like the combination. I like, when I can, the combination of a call and also a letter,” Trump said at the press conference.

This is the first time the White House has publically addressed the four Green Berets killed in Niger. A group of a dozen U.S. soldiers was ambushed while conducting a joint patrol with about 40 troops from Niger. Two other U.S. soldiers were injured, and Pentagon officials suspect a self-radicalized, ISIS-affiliated group is to blame.