Donald Trump has defended his false assertion that former President Barack Obama did not make phone calls to families of fallen soldiers, a claim derided by a number of Obama officials, by telling reporters to ask his chief of staff General John Kelly about the calls.
Mr Trump, speaking on Fox News Radio, said: “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…As far as other representatives, I don’t know, I mean you could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”
He was referring to when Mr Kelly’s son Robert, a Marine Second Lieutenant, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010.
Mr Kelly was the highest-ranking military official to lose a child in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. A White House official claimed to NBC News, on background, that Mr Kelly never received a call from Mr Obama after his son’s death.
“As far as other presidents, I don’t know, 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,” Mr Trump told Fox.
The 71-year-old, addressing his failure to publicly speak about US Green Berets killed in Niger, told a press conference on Monday he had written “personal letters” to the parents and would “at some point” call them.
Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson, Dustin Wright and Sergeant La David T Johnson were ambushed when patrolling with Niger troops by militants thought to be affiliated with terror group Isis.
Mr Trump said: “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.”
While Mr Kelly has not responded to the suggestion he did not receive a call, former Obama administration officials have hit out at the suggestion that Mr Obama did not call families as a matter of course.
Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor to Mr Obama, said: “This is an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards.”
Alyssa Mastromonaco, the former White House deputy chief of staff of operations, took to Twitter to call the claim a “f****** lie” and brand Mr Trump “a deranged animal”.
Pete Souza, the former White House photographer, took to Instagram and posted pictures of Mr Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama consoling the family of a soldier who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
He later posted a picture from one of several dozen visits the former president made to Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland, to visit wounded soldiers. These visits were not made public until near the end of his time in office.
After partially backtracking during Monday’s White House press conference by later saying Mr Obama “probably did sometimes” call soldiers’ families, he dismissed the discussion over the issue on Tuesday, blaming news channel CNN for stirring the debate.
“There’s nothing to clarify,” he told Fox News Radio. “This was, again, fake news CNN. I mean, they’re just a bunch of fakers.”
General Kelly’s son died after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan, but the four-star general had tried to keep the death private, according to reports.
Below is the full transcript of his comments on other presidents’ alleged failure to call the families of dead soldiers.
I’ve written them personal letters. They have been sent, or they’re going out tonight, but they were written during the weekend. I will at some point during the period of time call the parents and the families because I have done that traditionally. I felt very, very badly about that, I always feel badly.
The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens – soldiers are killed. 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.
They have made the ultimate sacrifice, so generally I would say that I’d like to call. I’m going to be calling them, I want a little time to pass, I’m going to be calling them. I have, as you know since I’ve been President, I have, but in addition I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we’re talking about and they’re going to be going out either today or tomorrow.
Later in the press conference Mr Trump clarifies his comments:
I was told that he didn’t often 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. All I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call, they’d write letters and some presidents didn’t do anything, but I like the combination of… I like when I can, the combination of a call and also a letter.