When he finally spoke up on Monday about the deadliest combat incident of his presidency — and then only in answer to a reporter’s question — Trump started a furor that engulfed his chief of staff, predecessors from both parties, a Florida congresswoman and now one of the grieving families of the soldiers he was being asked to honor.
Trump’s slow and sloppy response to the death of the soldiers ambushed Oct. 4 in Niger, in northern Africa, illustrated the hazards of his extemporaneous governing style, the disorganization within his White House and his refusal to back down in the face of criticism.
“It’s exactly the wrong way to handle this kind of situation,” said Leon E. Panetta, who served as Defense secretary under President Barack Obama and White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.
By Wednesday, the president was battling publicly with a Democratic congresswoman from Florida and the mother of the fallen soldier, Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, over the alleged insensitivity of his condolence call the day before.
The president’s actions shifted the normally private and somber functions of a commander in chief consoling grieving military families into the very public political arena. The spat with the Johnsons and their congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida, followed Trump’s statements on Monday and Tuesday suggesting his predecessors hadn’t often made similar calls and questioning whether Obama had called retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, when he lost a son in Afghanistan in 2010.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blamed the White House’s military protocol office for the delay in contacting the four families, the media for sensationalizing the issue and the congresswoman, who was with Johnson’s wife, Myeshia, when she received the call from Trump, for politicizing it. But others in Trump’s circle and outside observers turned some blame toward Trump and his advisers.
“This is a failure of the president’s staff,” said Sam Nunberg, a former political adviser. “The president would make these calls if it got to his desk. Ironically, his new chief of staff, John Kelly, who makes a point that he controls all information flow to the president, has failed the president here.”
A former administration official who demanded anonymity criticized Wilson but also suggested this was another of Trump’s frequent self-inflicted wounds. “There are just some obvious do’s and don’ts,” the official said.
A White House official confirmed that a national security aide had drafted a statement about the deaths a day after the ambush that Trump never delivered; aides decided that Sanders instead would read a statement at her daily news briefing.
For Kelly to be drawn into the controversy was particularly poignant, given his own loss of a son and his well-known reluctance to talk about it. Sanders would not say whether Trump had spoken with Kelly before invoking Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly’s death to imply criticism of Obama, but she did say that Kelly was “disgusted by the way this has been politicized.”
The four soldiers were killed while on patrol with about 20 Nigerien troops. The deaths of three — Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29 — were announced soon after the attack.
The Pentagon initially did not release information on the ambush or the fact there was a fourth soldier missing. The surviving soldiers noticed his absence after they had pulled back from Niger’s border region near Mali, which is notorious for drug smuggling, human trafficking and myriad extremist militias, including allies of al-Qaida and Islamic State. Johnson’s body was found two days later by locals after an all-out search had been launched.
Sanders mentioned the first three soldiers, not by name, at a news briefing the next day and the fourth a day later, telling reporters that Trump had been updated by Kelly “constantly on that situation as it evolved.”
But Trump did not speak or tweet about it for 12 days — until he was asked during a news conference on Monday why he had not said anything. Rather than respond directly to the question, Trump tried to divert blame to his predecessors, saying other presidents had not made it a practice to call victims’ families, while insisting that he had.
“The focal point should not be on the president or, for that matter, past presidents,” Panetta said.
Former staffers to Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton were furious, and publicly attested to their former bosses’ contacts with grieving families. Trump’s staffers were caught off guard. The former administration official called it a “cringe moment.”
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said the level of presidential attention to families of fallen soldiers depended in part on the scale of casualties and the technology of their eras. It was impossible for presidents during major wars to personally console tens of thousands of families, he said, while modern presidents such as Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump — none of whom served in combat — carry a greater burden to weigh in both publicly and with private condolences.
President Jimmy Carter, he said, tried to reach out to even the distant relatives of Iran hostages, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, while serving as supreme commander of allied forces in World War II, would put on classical music on Sundays while he wrote letters to relatives of the dead.
Until Trump, these contacts were usually done discreetly.
Trump “cheapened the process by staying silent and then being mealy-mouthed about it,” Brinkley said.
Sanders said Trump had been moved by the loss of life. “There’s never going to be enough that a president can do for the families of those that are killed in action,” she said.
Since Trump took office, 19 service members have been killed in action across six countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Niger.
The patrol ambushed in Niger intended to meet with local leaders to discuss security when they were attacked by about 50 militants, believed to be affiliated with Islamic State forces, who fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from trucks and motorcycles.
The soldiers, many of them from Army Special Forces, called in support from French attack helicopters and fighter jets, because U.S. attack aircraft were not in the region. Four Nigerien soldiers also were reported killed, with eight wounded.
Two American soldiers were wounded. All of the casualties belonged to the 3rd Special Forces Group based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
The deadly attack drew attention to the little-known U.S. military presence in Niger, an impoverished desert country. About 800 U.S. personnel are deployed there. The casualties came as a heavy blow to the insular special operations community that increasingly shoulders the burden of America’s counterterrorism operations overseas.
In all, U.S. special operations teams are deployed in 124 countries to train, advise and assist friendly forces, although most are focused in Africa and the Middle East. Trump has embraced special operations and given military commanders greater authority to launch attacks in Yemen and Somalia.
In late January, Navy SEAL Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens was killed on a night mission in Yemen that went awry. U.S. airstrikes aimed at militants killed more than a dozen civilians, including women and children, and a $70 million U.S. aircraft was destroyed.
Trump authorized the raid less than a week after he took office, and the administration has repeatedly said it was a success because the U.S. recovered valuable intelligence. Owens’ father publicly criticized the raid but his widow accepted an invitation to attend Trump’s first address to Congress days later.
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