Aides to the last two U.S. presidents are sharply disputing claims by President Donald Trump that they paid little attention to the families of fallen U.S. military personnel to offer sympathy and pay tribute for their service.
Trump claimed Monday that "if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls." But assistants to both former president Barack Obama and his predecessor, former president George W. Bush, say they both met with, called and wrote to hundreds, even thousands of families of soldiers, sailors and airmen killed in the last two decades of overseas U.S. military action.
Taking to Twitter, Obama's former deputy chief of staff, Alyssa Mastromonaco called Trump’s assertion a "[expletive] lie."
Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, called Trump's claim "an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards," noting that Trump, during last year's presidential election campaign, had attacked a Gold Star family, one that had lost a son in battle.
Freddy Ford, a spokesman for Bush, said that even as the U.S. death toll mounted during U.S. wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush "wrote all the families of the fallen" and met "hundreds, if not thousands" of family members of the war dead.
A retired former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said both Bush, Obama and first ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama "cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust."
Trump, at a White House news conference, was asked why he had not commented on the deaths of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers who were killed earlier this month in Niger. He said he had written to their families, that his notes would soon be sent and that he planned to later call them as well.
But he was pressed to defend his comment about Obama's lack of calls to families of the fallen.
"I was told that he didn't often, and a lot of presidents don't. They write letters," Trump said, adding, "President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told. ... Some presidents didn't do anything."
Later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump "wasn't criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact." She said that U.S. presidents didn't always call families of the fallen. "Sometimes they call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person."
Trump said, "The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens -- soldiers are killed. It's a very difficult thing."
The U.S. leader said he wants to let a bit of time pass before calling the families of the soldiers killed in Niger. "I like to call when it's appropriate, when I think I'm able to do it," he said.
The Pentagon announced earlier this month that the four U.S. Army Green Berets were killed in Niger during a joint patrol with Nigerien troops. It said that Islamic State fighters were responsible for the October 4 attack, which also left four of Niger's security personnel dead.