President Donald Trump has a talent for giving offense. Whether through mangled syntax or malicious statements, the president often finds a way to insult. So it is with Trump’s latest comments about his phone calls (or lack thereof) to the grieving families of four U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers killed in Niger earlier this month.
Contrary to the outraged hot takes of former White House staffers, Trump is right that presidents generally don’t call or visit the family of every U.S. service member killed in action. They often don’t have that luxury, since casualties are too numerous to grieve with each family. If Trump had clearly lied and said Presidents Obama, Bush, and others failed to ever call troops’ families, I’d be the first and loudest critic, based on my work as the Obama campaign’s veterans director in 2008. But Trump didn’t say that, exactly; he said he was following the precedent of calling when he could. Our outrage over what we heard Trump say is a reflection of our dislike for the man, not the truth of the matter. And this outrage is obscuring the far more important question of what, exactly, our troops are doing in the seemingly endless and expanding “forever war.” The energy now going into fact-checking Trump’s claims might be better spent asking what American Green Berets were doing in Niger at all.
Trump’s exact words deserve repetition because they are so imprecise. When asked about the Niger deaths, he first had this to say: “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 am able to do it.” A few minutes later, when pressed, Trump reversed course and 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.”
It takes a certain amount of exegesis to wring meaning from Trump’s words, because they are both unclear and ambiguous. If he’s saying these presidents didn’t make calls at all, or make personal visits, that’s wrong and clearly contradicted by evidence of many such calls and visits. However, if Trump meant that some or all presidents don’t call all the time, then the statement is literally correct. Trump’s later statement that “Obama, I think, probably did sometimes” suggests that Trump meant the latter, and thus he was accurately recounting what his advisers had likely told him about past presidents’ actions. (Trump’s doubling down on the comment Tuesday morning, in which he asked rhetorically whether his chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, ever got a call from Obama when Kelly’s son Robert was killed in Afghanistan, suggests this latter meaning too, and also that Trump had some factual basis for his statement. The Kelly family did not receive such a call from Obama after Robert’s death; however, they did attend a White House breakfast for Gold Star families in 2011, where they sat at then–first lady Michelle Obama’s table.)
Obama, like his predecessor, wrote letters to the family of every fallen service member. These letters often included a handwritten emendation of grief or praise. When possible, the Bush and Obama White Houses arranged for each president to meet with grieving Gold Star families. Similarly, both Presidents Bush and Obama made many visits to wounded troops and their families at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other hospitals, often staying for hours to bond with injured troops and comfort their worried families. Trump has done little of this to date, but some of that reflects the changing times. Bush and Obama presided over the deployment of 2.8 million service members between 2001 and 2017; Trump has sent just tens of thousands into harm’s way thus far, with far fewer casualties.
Previous presidents likely never had the ability to pay respects this way to the families of our fallen. During massive wars like World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, hundreds (or even thousands) of troops died each week; no president could have called every family, or even penned a personal letter of condolence, let alone visited with them. Fewer service members have died, thankfully, during more recent conflicts. Nonetheless, it has remained impractical for the president to make a call for each service member. And, beyond the impracticality, presidents have also wanted to respect the chain of command; what may be appropriate for a company or battalion commander is not necessarily appropriate for the elected commander in chief. With this in mind, the Department of Veterans Affairs issues formal “presidential memorial certificates” that bear a presidential signature–although these are, obviously, standard forms that the president does not personally sign.
So it seems that Trump may have been right, even if he mangled his syntax and seemingly threw his military staff under the bus for either delaying the letters or imprecisely advising him about presidential precedent. Unfortunately, this misplaced outrage may have more real consequences here, because it is distracting attention from the actual incident that took place.
Thirteen days after their deaths, we lack any real explanation for why and how Army Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright died in combat on Oct. 4. In a wide-ranging press conference, senior Pentagon officials said they were in Niger to train and advise the country’s security forces, which have partnered with the U.S. to root out al-Qaida-linked elements in Africa. The efforts in Niger appear broadly linked to the global U.S. counterterrorism campaign, which began after 9/11, an effort that now continues to expand and grind on under an amorphous blend of legal authorities. Sgts. Black, Johnson, Johnson, and Wright died while accompanying Nigerien forces on a patrol near the border with Mali. Similar patrols had been conducted some 30 times previously without incident. And yet, on Oct. 4, al-Qaida-linked militants ambushed the American Green Berets and their Nigerien teammates. The ambush—and American fatalities—punctured the lie that American troops were simply in Niger for a training mission, just as American casualties have done for decades of similar missions in Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Training and advising missions frequently include combat, too; the enemy gets an important vote on deciding when and where they make the switch. Insisting otherwise insults those who conduct these missions, and the memories of those who die during them.
The outrage over Trump’s statements—and his seemingly endless pattern of insulting veterans, attacking Gold Star families, and politicizing the military—camouflage the fact that he may be right about his calls to troops. However, it would add insult to injury for us to let this outrage blind ourselves to the bigger questions about how and why these troops died. The worst tribute we could pay to Sgts. Black, Johnson, Johnson, and Wright would be to ignore the cause they fought for, without any hard questions for their commander in chief about how or why they died, and what we purchased in national security with their lives.