Columns

Trump Vows to Call at 'Some Point' Families of Green Berets Killed 12 Days Ago in Niger

President Trump speaks as he stands next Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after their meeting at the White House on Oct. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON — In an impromptu Rose Garden press conference today, President Trump said he would call the families of four Green Berets killed 12 days ago in Niger — a counterterrorism ambush that he hasn’t tweeted or otherwise publicly spoken about — at “some point.”

 Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash., Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga., were killed Oct. 4 as three of a dozen U.S. soldiers accompanying a few dozen Nigerien soldiers on a routine patrol.

On Oct. 6, the body of another American who had been listed as missing after the attack was recovered by Nigerien forces: Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Fla. The next day, Johnson’s remains arrived at Dover.

“I’ve written them personal letters. They’ve been sent, or they’re going out tonight, but they were written during the weekend. I will, at some point during the period of time, call the parents and the families, because I have done that traditionally,” Trump told reporters when asked why he hadn’t publicly said anything about the fallen soldiers.

“I felt very, very badly about that. I always feel badly. It’s the toughest — the toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens. Soldiers are killed. It’s a very difficult thing. Now, it gets to a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day — it’s a very, very tough day. For me, that’s by far the toughest,” he added. “So the traditional way — 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.”

“They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally I would say that I like to call. I’m going to be calling them. I want a little time to pass. I’m going to be calling them. I have — as you know, since I’ve been president, I have. But in addition, I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we’re talking about, and they’re going to be going out either today or tomorrow.”

Former Obama senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer tweeted in response that Trump was “a deeply disturbed ignoramus who is a pathological liar,” former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Alyssa Mastromonaco tweeted that Trump’s claim was “a fucking lie,” and former Obama special White House assistant Jesse Lee tweeted that the former president’s visits to wounded service members and families “were almost never on the public schedule, done quietly, not boasted about.”

“This is an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards,” tweeted former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. “Also: Obama never attacked a Gold Star family.”

Later in Trump’s press conference, the president was asked how he could make the claim that Obama didn’t call families of the fallen.

“I don’t know if he did. No, no, no. I was — I was told that he didn’t often, and a lot of presidents don’t. They write letters,” Trump replied. “…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 — all I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call, they’d write letters. And some presidents didn’t do anything.”

Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. said at the Pentagon on Thursday that group that was attacked, including Nigerien and U.S. soldiers, “had actually done 29 patrols without contact over the previous six months or so; no indication that this was going to occur.”

Both al-Qaeda and ISIS operate in the area. In March, Niger declared a state of emergency due to the Mali border threat; this was extended last month. Niger announced offensive operations in Tillabéri this June.

ISIS mentioned the incident in their weekly al-Naba newsletter last week, but did not explicitly take credit.

“We’ll look at what we do in order to support forces that are still going to go out and train with our Nigerian partners, and we’ll pre-position in order to take into account this new factor in the theater,” McKenzie said.