President Trump doubled down on his claim that President Obama failed to call the families of slain troops on Tuesday, following his familiar playbook of exacerbating a self-created predicament.
And Trump veered into evermore sensitive territory, implying to Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade that President Obama never called John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, after Kelly’s son died in Afghanistan in 2010.
“Now, as far as other representatives, I don’t know,” he said during a radio interview. “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.”
To back up his point, the White House then told multiple news outlets, off the record, that Obama had not called Kelly at that time.
But Politico reported that Obama hosted an event for Gold Star families in 2011, and that Kelly had attended and sat at Michelle Obama’s table. Kelly also attended a 2012 dinner commemorating the service of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s unclear whether Kelly was onboard with the Trump administration’s strange communications strategy. But he has long been reticent on the matter of his son, Robert Michael Kelly, who stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan in 2010, reportedly choosing not to speak out to avoid drawing attention.
“We are not inclined to make ourselves out to be any different, just because I’m a lieutenant general in the Marines,” Kelly told the Boston Globe in 2011. “We are just one family. It’s not worse for us; it’s not easier for us.”
Trump’s latest unfounded attacks on his predecessor began at a press conference on Monday, when Trump was asked why he hadn’t called the parents of any of the four American troops recently killed in Niger. The president said he had sent the families letters, then took a swipe at Obama. “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 said. (When a reporter pressed him on the point, he walked back some of his claim, saying that Obama may have made some phone calls, but “I was told that he didn’t often.”)
The easily disproved assertion, which Trump appears to have picked up from right-wing media, provoked a fierce backlash from aides and advisers to the former president, who recalled frequent calls, letters, and visits to Gold Star families.
“President Obama engaged families of the fallen and wounded warriors throughout his presidency through calls, letters, visits to [Arlington Cemetery], visits to Walter Reed, visits to Dover, and regular meetings with Gold Star families at the White House and across the country,” a former White House official said.
From his birther conspiracy to his attacks on Khizr Khan to his broadsides against NFL players, Trump has made a career out of refusing to back down on even his most outrageous pronouncements. But, as Benjy Sarlin notes, he’s a master of subtly shifting the conversation around the outrage he provokes, so that his original offense is replaced by a still-objectionable, but slightly less fallacious, talking point.
In that sense, the newfound focus on Kelly could be viewed as a twisted mini-victory for Trump. But it seems unlikely that even the president’s base will be jazzed about using the memory of a dead soldier to score a petty political win.
Later on Tuesday, Sarah Hubackee Sanders confirmed that Trump had spoken to the families of the troops killed in Niger.