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Donald Trump's misleading comments on Obama's calls to fallen soldiers' families

Manuela Tobias
By Manuela Tobias October 17, 2017

President Donald Trump accused Barack Obama and other former presidents of insufficient outreach to fallen soldiers’ families.

Following Trump’s silence on the death of four Green Berets in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger, Trump said he would be calling their families and had already written letters that are "going out either today or tomorrow."

He then claimed his approach went above and beyond the norm.

"The traditional way, you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls," Trump said.

We found no evidence to support the idea that other presidents did less than Trump. When a reporter followed up at the press conference where Trump spoke, Trump admitted he was unsure about Obama’s practices.

"I was told he didn’t, often, and a lot of presidents don’t," Trump said. "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."

As former White House officials attested, it’s inaccurate to say Obama and previous presidents never called the families of soldiers who died in combat. But how often these calls were placed is hard to pinpoint, because presidential dealings with soldiers’ families are traditionally kept private out of respect. Because of the private nature of these contacts, we won’t rate Trump’s statement on our Truth-O-Meter.

We found one instance, which Trump may have had in mind, where Obama aides reportedly told the father of Sgt. Sean Collins that Obama did not regularly call families of fallen soldiers.

(The White House did not provide comment for this story.)

Experts told us it’s not the norm for every family to receive a personal phone call.

"For presidents who served in times of lengthy wars, Vietnam and War on Terror, when thousands of service members have been killed in action, it would be impractical to think presidents could call all families," said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. "I suspect that all presidents at least send letters to the families of fallen service members."

We found ample evidence of Obama’s engagement with families of fallen and wounded warriors.

Obama regularly signed condolence letters to families and said there was "nothing more sobering" in a 2009 speech on Afghanistan.

Pete Souza, former White House photographer, posted a picture of Obama consoling the parents of Jared Monti, a sergeant in Afghanistan who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

"I also photographed him meeting with hundreds of wounded soldiers, and family members of those killed in action," Souza wrote in the caption.

In 2009, Obama made an unscheduled late-night visit to Dover Air Force Base to receive the remains of 18 U.S. soldiers and drug enforcement agents from Afghanistan and comfort the families of the dead. The news media was only allowed to witness the last transfer off the plane.

In 2010, Gold Star mother Sharon Belkofer met Obama at Fort Drum, and a year later he requested to see her again, as she told the Democratic National Convention in 2016.  

Obama visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on the day before his inauguration and at least three times as president by 2011.

First Lady Michelle Obama recalled their visits during the first term would last hours "because there would be 25, 50, 75 folks that we’d be seeing, going room to room, many with devastating injuries."

George W. Bush visited wounded troops in Water Reed 16 times, and nine times at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

"I oftentimes say being commander in chief of the military is the thing I'll miss the most," Bush told reporters after his last visit. "Coming here to Walter Reed is a reminder of why I'll miss it."

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Our Sources

Youtube, Press conference, Oct. 16, 2017

Email interview with Barbara Perry, director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, Oct. 16, 2017

Ben Rhodes, Tweet, Oct. 16, 2017

Alyssa Mastromonaco, Tweet, Oct. 16, 2017

Politico, Obama visits wounded troops, Oct. 10, 2011

Axios, Trump falsely claims ex-presidents didn't call families of fallen soldiers, Oct. 17, 2017

Washington Post, Trump's claim that Obama didn't make calls to the families of the fallen, Oct. 16, 2017

The News Tribune, Family of fallen soldier warmed by letters, stung by politicians, Dec. 30, 2010

Fox News, Father of Fallen Soldier Says White House Turned Down Request for Obama Phone Call, Jan. 7, 2011

Washington Times, Obama signs 'Barack' to fallen troops' kin, Feb. 17, 2009

Pete Souza, Instagram, Oct. 16, 2017

The Guardian, Barack Obama meets coffins of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Oct. 29, 2009

Youtube, Sharon Belkofer at DNC 2016, July 27, 2016

New York Times, Obama’s Sacred Duty: Visiting the Wounded at Walter Reed, Nov. 29, 2016

Washington Post, Bush Visits Injured Soldiers at Walter Reed, Dec. 23, 2017

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