Updated on October 22, 2017.
The Trump administration is scrambling to defend the president’s characterization of his communications with grieving military families, including rush-delivering letters from the president to the families of servicemembers killed months ago. Donald Trump falsely claimed this week that he had called “virtually” all fallen servicemembers’ families since his time in office.
Timothy Eckels Sr. hadn’t heard anything from President Trump since his son Timothy Eckels Jr. was killed after a collision involving the USS John S. McCain on August 21. But then, on October 20, two days into the controversy over the president’s handling of a condolence call with an American soldier’s widow, Eckels Sr. received a United Parcel Service package dated October 18 with a letter from the White House.
“Honestly, I feel the letter is reactionary to the media storm brewing over how these things have been handled,” Eckels told The Atlantic. “I’ve received letters from McCain, Mattis, and countless other officials before his. I wasn’t sure if the fact that the accident that caused Timothy’s death has still yet to officially have the cause determined played into the timing of our president’s response.”
He added that the letter “seemed genuine and even mentioned Timothy’s siblings.” It was “a respectful letter,” Eckels wrote. The family of Corey Ingram, another Navy systems technician who died in the collision on the USS John McCain, also confirmed to The Atlantic they received a rush-delivered letter from the White House on October 20. A third family, of another sailor who perished in the accident, John M. Hoagland III, said they, too, received a rush-delivery letter this week. A fourth family, that of Allen Levi Stigler Jr., who died in Iraq on August 13, also received a letter on Friday.
It was not immediately clear whether White House condolence letters are typically sent via this expedited shipping. But one former official who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations said that it would be unusual for condolence letters to be sent weeks after the fact, because they were seen as "priority correspondence, to get to the family in a week or two if possible."
The White House declined to address The Atlantic’s specific questions about how Trump has—or has not—comforted grieving military families. “The president and the nation are grateful for the service and sacrifice of our fallen American heroes,” a White House official told The Atlantic.“We have addressed the president’s outreach to the families extensively and out of respect, we are not going to comment further.”
The controversy began with a Rose Garden press conference on Monday, October 16, in which Trump was asked why he had not spoken out about the deaths of four U.S. servicemembers in Niger on October 4. He responded by falsely suggesting that previous presidents hadn’t made personal calls to the families of slain U.S. servicemembers. The next day, he followed up by claiming that he had called “virtually” all fallen servicemembers’ families, which was also false.
In the past week, The Atlantic made contact with 12 families who had been identified as having lost kin serving in the military since January. Along with those contacted by other news outlets like The Washington Post and the Associated Press, about 25 of the 46 families have been reached. Of those 25, a plurality—11 families—said they had received neither a call nor a letter from the president. Nine confirmed that they had received personal calls from the president. Members of four families said they had received a letter, but no call. And members of the remaining family were contacted by the White House, but declined to meet with the president.
According to Roll Call, by 5 p.m. on October 17, the White House had asked and received information from the Pentagon that indicated “senior White House aides were aware on the day the president made the statement that it was not accurate—but that they should try to make it accurate as soon as possible, given the gathering controversy.”
Especially during wartime, presidents are not expected to personally call the surviving family members of every fallen service member. More than 4,000 American servicemembers have died in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the firestorm around Trump’s claims about his contacts with military families set off an effort within his administration to shore up the president’s claims.
On Tuesday, Trump called the families of four men who died in Niger on October 4, after promising to do so in the Monday press briefing. Then, along with the rush-delivered letters to the families of Eckels, Hoagland, Ingram, and Stigler, Trump also mailed a $25,000 check on Wednesday to a grieving father to whom he had promised money in a June phone call, the father told The Washington Post.
The money, the rush-delivered letters, and the recent phone calls all represent a sharp change for an administration whose outreach to bereaved military families had appeared to slow since June.
Two families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan on August 2, Christopher Harris and Jonathon Hunter, were told they should expect a call and never received one. The family of Sergeant Roshain Euvince Brooks, who died in Iraq in August, did not receive a call.
Several other families have talked to other news outlets about their experiences. Jasmin William Bays, the wife of Sergeant William Bays, received a call from Trump, and wrote on Facebook that “the President’s words to me were kind, genuine and sincere. His words helped me heal during my time of grief.” Other recent presidents have not personally called all military families who have lost relatives, but both presidents Obama and Bush occasionally made such calls.
This all comes after a turbulent week, set off by Trump’s claim to have been more involved than previous presidents in contacting military families. The president even involved his chief of staff, John Kelly, himself a retired Marine general who lost a son in the war in Afghanistan, in a feud with Florida Representative Frederica Wilson, who said that the president’s outreach to a slain U.S. servicemember’s family had been gone poorly.
Wilson said a call made to one of families of the four men slain in Niger in early October, Sergeant La David Johnson, ended with the family feeling disrespected. Wilson, a friend of the Johnson family, was present when the call was made. Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, confirmed Wilson’s account, telling The Washington Post that the president had shown “disrespect” for her son and family with statements that her son “must have known what he signed up for.” Many questions remain about how Johnson became separated from the other members of his team.
Some families expressed that they were “disappointed” they had not received a call or letter from Trump, but still others questioned the relevance of the president’s actions in the larger scheme of things.
“If that letter or that phone call could bring my son back, I would run from here on foot to Washington, D.C., to get that letter,” Sheila Murphy, the mother of Army Specialist Etienne Murphy, who was killed in Syria in May, told MSNBC. “But right now it really doesn’t matter who did the greatest thing.”