WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump invoked the 2010 combat death of the son of his chief of staff in implying Tuesday that then-President Barack Obama had not properly expressed his condolences to John Kelly.
The remark came despite a storm of forceful rebukes by officials of past administrations over Trump’s claim a day earlier that Obama and other former commanders in chief didn’t call the families of fallen soldiers.
Former Obama national security adviser Ben Rhodes tweeted that it was “an outrageous and disrespectful lie.” David Frum, a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, shared an opinion piece about Bush in a 2005 visit to Walter Reed hospital in Washington D.C. accepting “the rage of a grieving mother.”
But Trump didn’t abandon his assertion Tuesday.
“I think I’ve called every family of somebody that’s died and it’s the hardest call to make,” he told Fox News Radio’s “The Brian Kilmeade Show.” “ . . . Now, as far as other representatives, I don’t know. I mean, you could ask General Kelly did he get a call from Obama.”
A White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity said Obama had not called Kelly, whose son, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan. But the official did not say if Obama had reached out in other ways.
Six months after his son’s 2010 death, Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, attended a breakfast hosted by Obama for Gold Star families, according to White House visitor records reviewed by The Associated Press. A person familiar with the breakfast, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the AP that Kelly sat at then-first lady Michelle Obama’s table.
“If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” Trump had said Monday. “A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate.”
He was responding to a question about why he had yet to address the Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. service members.
Trump spoke with their families Tuesday, assuring them their “extraordinary sacrifice to the country will never be forgotten,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Trump’s claim about how his predecessors handled such deaths riled those who worked for them.
Bush, Obama and the first ladies “cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust,” tweeted retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman from 2011 to 2015.
“When we lost a group of SEALs — large group of SEALs with a helicopter lost in Afghanistan — he came to Dover, and we greeted not only the bodies as they arrived, but he met with each of the families,” Obama’s defense secretary Leon Panetta told CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.”
Panetta, also chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, added that Clinton wrote notes and visited with the families.
Also Tuesday, Trump and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) fanned the flames of their long-standing intraparty feud.
McCain pointedly criticized Trump’s presidency Monday night when the retired Navy captain accepted the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
He warned against “some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems,” calling it “as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
Asked Tuesday on radio program “The Chris Plante Show” about McCain’s remarks, Trump warned: “I’m being very, very nice. But at some point I fight back, and it won’t be pretty.”
McCain, who was a prisoner of war and is battling brain cancer, responded, “I’ve faced far greater challenges than this,” according to a CNN reporter.