WASHINGTON — After her military son was killed in an armored vehicle rollover in Syria in May, Sheila Murphy says, she received no calls or letters from President Donald Trump, even as she waited months for his condolences, writing to say “some days I don’t I want to live,” and still heard nothing.
In contrast, Trump called to comfort Eddie and Aldene Lee about 10 days after their military son was killed in an explosion while on patrol in Iraq in April. “A lovely young man,” Trump said, according to Aldene. She thought it was a nice word to hear about her boy, “lovely.”
Like presidents before him, Trump has been in personal contact with some families of the fallen, not all of them. What is different is that Trump, alone among themselves, has started a political fight over who has done better to honor the war dead and their families.
He placed himself at the top of this pantheon, boasting Tuesday that “I think I’ve called every family of someone who has died,” while previous presidents made no such calls.
But The Associated Press found relatives of two soldiers who died abroad during Trump’s presidency who said they never received a call or letter from him, as well as relatives of a third who did not receive a call. And there is abundant evidence that Barack Obama and George W. Bush, saddled with far more combat casualties than the roughly two dozen so far under Trump, took meticulous steps to write, call or meet with bereaved military families.
The issue came up because it was nearly two weeks before Trump called the families of four US soldiers who died in Niger nearly two weeks ago. He made the calls on Tuesday.
READ MORE: Trump ignites furor with claim past presidents failed to comfort military families over the phone
Meanwhile, Rep. Frederica Wilson said Tuesday night that Trump told the widow of a slain soldier that he “knew what he signed up for.” Earlier Wednesday, the president called Wilson’s version of the conversation a fabrication.
The Florida Democrat said she was in the car with Myeshia Johnson on her way to Miami International Airport to meet the body of Johnson’s husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, when Trump called. Wilson says that she heard part of the conversation on speakerphone.
Asked by Miami station WPLG if she actually heard Trump say that, she replied: “Yes, he did say that. To me, that’s something you can say in conversation, but you shouldn’t say that to a grieving widow.” She added: “That’s so insensitive.”
Trump had a major problem with that reckoning early on Wednesday.
“The Democratic congresswoman totally fabricated what I told the wife of a soldier who was killed in action (and I have proof). Sad!” she said on Twitter.
Sergeant Johnson was among the four servicemen killed in the Niger ambush.
Wilson said he didn’t hear the entire conversation and Myeshia Johnson told him she couldn’t remember everything that was said.
The White House did not immediately comment.
READ MORE: Trump’s claim on fallen troops and predecessors questioned
Trump’s delay in speaking publicly about the missing men in Niger does not seem extraordinary, judging by past examples, but his politicization of the matter is. He went so far Tuesday as to cite the death of chief of staff John Kelly’s son in Afghanistan to question whether Obama had properly honored the war dead.
Kelly was a Marine general under Obama when his Marine son, Robert, died in 2010. “You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?” Trump said on Fox News radio.
Democrats and some former administration officials were furious, accusing Trump of “stupid cruelty” and a “sick game.”
Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, an Iraq veteran who lost both her legs when her helicopter was attacked, said, “I just wish this commander-in-chief would stop using the Gold Star families as pawns in whatever sick game he’s trying to play. play here ”
For their part, Gold Star families, who have lost members in times of war, told the AP of acts of intimate kindness by Obama and Bush as those commanders-in-chief comforted them.
Trump initially claimed that only he, among presidents, made sure to call families. Obama may have done so at one time, he said, but “other presidents didn’t call.”
He was wrong on Tuesday when the record made it clear that his characterization was false. “I don’t know,” she said of previous calls. But he said it was his own practice to call all war families dead.
But that has not happened:
No White House protocol requires presidents to speak or meet with the families of Americans killed in action, an impossible task in the bloodiest stages of a war. But often they do.
In total, some 6,900 Americans have died in foreign wars since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the overwhelming majority under Bush and Obama.
Despite the much higher cost during his tenure (more than 800 killed each year from 2004 to 2007), Bush wrote to all grieving military families and met or spoke with hundreds, if not thousands, said his spokesman, Freddy Ford. .
Veterans groups said they had no problem with the way presidents have recognized the fallen or their families.
“I don’t think there is any president that I know of who hasn’t called families,” said Rick Weidman, co-founder and CEO of the Vietnam Veterans of America. “President Obama called often and President Bush called often. They also made regular visits to Walter Reed and Bethesda Medical Center, going in the evenings and on Saturdays.”
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia. Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, Kristen de Groot in Philadelphia, Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, Michelle Price in Salt Lake City, and Hope Yen and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.