President Trump lies so often, and on such an astonishingly wide array of topics, that it’s rare for any single one of them to spark as much raw fury as his baseless accusation that Barack Obama and other previous presidents didn’t call the families of fallen American troops to offer condolences.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder told Trump to “stop the damn lying.” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, called Trump’s remarks “an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards.” Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former top Obama administration official, tweeted that Trump’s accusation was “a fucking lie” and derided the president as “a deranged animal.”
The anger also extended deep inside the military, with retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tweeting that both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had worked to comfort the families of dead troops.
The former military and civilian officials were responding to a comment Trump made Monday after being asked why he hadn’t yet reached out to the families of the four American Special Forces members killed in a recent ambush in Niger.
“If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said at a Rose Garden press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate.”
Trump doubled down on that charge Tuesday, using the death of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s son in Afghanistan as a political weapon.
“Now, as far as other representatives, I don’t know,” Trump said in a radio interview with a Fox News host. “I mean, you could ask Gen. 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.”
A White House official later told Politico that Kelly didn’t receive a call from Obama after his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. That’s misleading, though: The White House hosted a breakfast for the families of fallen troops in May 2011, and Kelly — then a serving general — and his wife sat at the same table as First Lady Michelle Obama.
Trump’s initial accusation was also a lie. In 2011, Obama went to Dover Air Force Base, where the bodies of America’s war dead are flown back to the US, to meet with the families of the 30 troops, including 22 Navy SEALs, who died after their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Washington Post that Obama “made calls to some of the families” who lost loved ones in the crash, and had done so with the families of other fallen troops.
This isn’t a partisan issue. Although Trump only mentioned Obama by name, his initial comment also referenced “other presidents,” an accusation that would extend to George W. Bush and other Republicans. That, too, is a lie. I covered the Pentagon and the war in Iraq during the Bush years, and was personally told by several grieving families that Bush had called them or met with them in person, often joining them in crying for their fallen loved ones.
But to me, the most important takeaway of this latest Trump lie isn’t simply that it was false, or that it injected politics into what is normally a bipartisan tradition of respecting the nation’s war dead.
Instead, I was struck by the fact that the comment inadvertently highlights the disrespect, bordering on contempt, that Trump has for many in the military, including its top generals. Put another way, Trump’s comment says less about Obama’s relationship with the military and more about his own.
Trump has been attacking the military for months, and shows no signs of changing
It may seem counterintuitive to say that Trump, a president who has stacked his administration with a striking number of current and retired generals, is hostile to the military, especially its top generals. But he is, and he has been for a long time.
During the campaign — after he mocked John McCain’s war heroism and publicly attacked the parents of a soldier who died in Iraq — Trump told Matt Lauer during a televised interview that he’d be willing to take the unprecedented step of firing generals en masse if he didn’t like what they had to say. The Pentagon’s top brass, he alleged, “have been reduced to rubble … to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country.” Once he took charge, Trump continued, “they’ll probably be different generals.”
(Trump made the comment in connection to his assertion that he had a secret 30-day plan for defeating ISIS; he had no such plan, and he has yet to fire any generals.)
Many in the military found those comments jarring but were often even more unsettled by Trump’s response, just weeks into his presidency, to a botched special operations raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens and dozens of civilians. Trump, the commander in chief, accepted no responsibility for what had happened. Instead, he blamed his generals.
“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” Trump said. “They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do — the generals — who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
Things have only gotten worse since then. NBC News reported that Trump startled Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and many top generals during a July meeting by comparing his own administration’s internal Afghan policy review to the botched renovation of a prominent and profitable New York restaurant in the 1980s.
Trump, according to NBC, said the restaurant, the 21 Club, shut down for a year and lost a huge amount of money because its owners listened to the recommendations of a well-paid consultant instead of the waiters and kitchen staff who knew the establishment most intimately. Trump’s barely hidden implication was clear to everyone in the room: Generals were no better informed, and in some cases even knew less, than low-ranking troops.
At a different meeting that same month, Trump again startled many of the Pentagon’s top military and civilian officials by proposing that the US increase the size of its nuclear arsenal tenfold. NBC News, which broke the story, said officials had to patiently explain to Trump the reasons why such an expansion wasn’t practical, including that it would violate numerous international treaties and be hugely expensive. The generals and civilian national security officials appear to have won Trump over, at least for now; no such expansion of the nation’s arsenal is planned.
Still, NBC News, in a gently worded but chilling summary of the meeting, reported that some officials who attended the tense meeting “were rattled by the president’s desire for more nuclear weapons and his understanding of other national security issues from the Korean Peninsula to Iraq and Afghanistan.” (One of the rattled officials was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who told others in the room, after the president had left, that Trump was “a fucking moron.”)
Comforting the families of fallen troops is a sacred duty for a commander in chief. Trump doesn’t seem to get that.
As Army veteran Phillip Carter wrote for Vox in August, Trump’s feuds with the military range from matters of strategy (the generals prefer using diplomacy to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff; Trump has effectively threatened war) to social issues like Trump’s transgender ban (which many in the military oppose) and issues of basic human decency like Trump’s refusal to outright condemn the recent neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia (every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did so unequivocally).
That, in part, is what makes Trump’s newest falsehood about Obama and other presidents not calling the families of America’s war dead so troubling. It isn’t simply another reminder that Trump is a liar of almost unfathomable proportions (the Washington Post recently reported that he’d made 1,318 false or misleading claims in his first 263 days in office, an average of five per day).
It also shows that Trump remains inexplicably willing to tell lies that alienate the leadership of the armed forces he commands and that he may one day order into war with North Korea.
Like his predecessors, Trump gives orders that will in some cases inevitably result in the deaths of American troops. He owes it to them and their families — and to the broader military for which they gave their lives — not to turn those losses into political attack lines. And he owes it to them — and to us — not to tell lies about what Obama, Bush, and other presidents treated as a hard but sacred part of their jobs.