WASHINGTON-- For U.S. presidents, meeting the families of military personnel killed in war is about as wrenching as the presidency gets. President Donald Trump's suggestion Monday that his predecessors fell short in that duty brought a visceral reaction from those who witnessed those grieving encounters.
"He's a deranged animal," Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former deputy chief of staff to President Barack Obama, tweeted about Trump. With an expletive, she called Trump's statement in the Rose Garden a lie.
Trump said in a news conference he had written letters to the families of four soldiers killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger and planned to call them, crediting himself with taking extra steps in honoring the dead properly. "Most of them didn't make calls," he said of his predecessors. He said it's possible that Obama "did sometimes" but "other presidents did not call."
The record is plain that presidents reached out to families of the dead and to the wounded, often with their presence as well as by letter and phone. The path to Walter Reed and other military hospitals, as well as to the Dover, Delaware, Air Force Base where the remains of fallen soldiers are often brought, is a familiar one to Obama, George W. Bush and others.
Bush, even at the height of two wars, "wrote all the families of the fallen," said Freddy Ford, spokesman for the ex-president. Ford said Bush also called or met "hundreds, if not thousands" of family members of the war dead.
Obama's official photographer, Pete Souza, tweeted that he photographed Obama "meeting with hundreds of wounded soldiers, and family members of those killed in action." Others recalled his frequent visits with Gold Star families, and travels to Walter Reed, Dover and other venues with families of the dead and with the wounded.
Trump addressed the matter when asked why he had not spoken about the four soldiers killed in Niger. They died when militants thought to be affiliated with the Islamic State group ambushed them while they were patrolling in unarmored trucks with Nigerien troops.
"I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we're talking about, and they're going to be going out either today or tomorrow," he said, meaning he wrote to the families of the fallen soldiers. He did not explain why the letters had not been sent yet, more than a week after the attack.
"If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls," Trump said.
Pressed on that statement later, he said of Obama: "I was told that he didn't often, and a lot of presidents don't. They write letters." He went on: "President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told. ... Some presidents didn't do anything."
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later that Trump "wasn't criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact." She argued that presidents didn't always call families of those killed in battle: "Sometimes they call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person."