Washington (CNN)Somehow, one defensive answer by the President at a news conference has turned into an ugly dispute over what he said to the grieving family of a fallen soldier.
Trump's defensive answer turned a sad story into an ugly political one
It's a case study in how President Donald Trump's deflection on an issue and his unwillingness to back down on basically anything created a macabre news cycle and politicized the sacrifice of soldiers, who likely have no interest in being used this way. It's not the first time this has happened, although this time feels different since the family members are not willingly stepping into the spotlight to oppose Trump as Khizr Khan did at the Democratic convention in 2016.
This entire new storyline -- that the calling of Gold Star families by the commander in chief has somehow devolved into some sort of competition between presidents -- is distasteful, to say the least.
Heretofore, there has been one constant rule of Trump's political being: Barack Obama was wrong.
That's what makes Trump's defensive answer to CNN's question Monday about why he didn't call the families of fallen service members so odd.
In this case, Trump is defending himself because Obama did it, too.
We should point out here Trump was not asked about Obama when this issue of four US soldiers killed in Niger came up Monday. He was asked by CNN's Sara Murray why he hadn't mentioned the deaths of four American service members nearly two weeks after it happened. The circumstances around the deaths of the soldiers in Niger is under review and information about the deaths has become available slowly. Read Barbara Starr's reporting about the ongoing review of the attack and the investigation into what went so horribly wrong.
The deaths and his public silence were the context of Murray's question to Trump. Not whether he had called the families. Here's the full exchange:
Murray: Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?
Trump: I've written them personal letters. They've 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. It's the toughest -- 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 know, 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 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.
He brought up Obama in this case, which was the weird part of the answer. It set off a full day of pushback by former Obama aides on Twitter. Why did the President decide to bring Obama up? We actually know, because Fox News' Brian Kilmeade asked him the next day.
KILMEADE: One of the questions was about writing the Green Beret soldiers and ends up being a bigger story. Can I ask you what you thought about when you brought up past presidents and what they've done? Do you want to clarify anything?
TRUMP: Well, there's nothing to clarify because if you look at my whole -- this was again fake news CNN. I mean, they're just a bunch of fakers. So, they asked me that question and 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. Now, as far as other representatives, I don't know. 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.
Now, sometimes if you had a tragic event with -- 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 us all. I've called virtually everybody. I've gone to Dover. 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. But I really speak for myself. I'm not speaking for other people. I don't know what (George W.) Bush did, I don't know what Obama did. 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.
I can tell you my policy is I've called every one of them. And you have to let a little time go by. You can't just call immediately but I will be calling, have called and will be calling the parents and the loved ones, wives, et cetera of the soldiers that recently were killed.
Here Trump goes from attacking the media for asking the question in the first place to mischaracterizing what the initial question was to further injecting Obama into the answer to adding his chief of staff, a retired Marine general, John Kelly, whose son died in November 2010 in Afghanistan.
Kelly has been very quiet in public about his son and that should be respected. But it's clear that Kelly and Trump discussed whether Obama had called Kelly in the immediate aftermath of his son's death (the reporting suggests he did not).
For the record, we still don't know exactly why Trump didn't mention the US deaths in Niger before he was asked about them, although we have a good window into his thinking on how to deal with grieving families. It's hard, as it should be, to talk to people in grief. It must be harder still to be the commander in chief and talk to the widow or parent of a soldier you sent into battle.
We do know that his subsequent call to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson did not go well. Rep. Frederica Wilson overheard portions of the call when she was with Johnson's widow and has relayed those to CNN and other networks.
Trump vehemently disputed Wilson the morning after Wilson shared her account on CNN is sure to keep the story going. He won't back down.