With the political press in a volley of anonymous leaks and counterleaks about how Barack Obama did or did not console John Kelly after his son’s death, it’s important to reflect on how we got here—and what it shows about President Trump’s methods of controlling the media and the news cycle.
First, a brief timeline. On October 4, four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger, a country where the United States is not formally at war, and where American troops were supposedly in an advisory and training role. For 12 days, Trump said nothing about the deaths, even as he opined about plenty of other things. The White House was not forthcoming with information, either.
On Monday, Trump threw an impromptu press conference, and was asked about the deaths. “Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” a reporter asked.
Reading that question charitably, the reporter wanted to know both why the voluble Trump had been so quiet and also what had happened to the soldiers and why they were on patrol in Niger. But Trump took it only to have the first meaning, and as an affront. He reacted somewhat defensively, comparing himself—as he is wont to do—to previous presidents:
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. 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.
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’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Aides to both Obama and George W. Bush reacted angrily, saying both men had taken many steps to console the families of slain service members. A few moments later, reporter Peter Alexander of NBC asked how Trump could claim Obama never called families, and Trump backed off, a little:
I don’t know if he did. No, no, no, I was told that he didn’t often. And a lot of presidents don’t; they write letters. I do a combination of both. Sometimes—it’s a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both. 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. But I like the combination of—I like, when I can, the combination of a call and also a letter.
Trump’s claim that some presidents “didn’t do anything” appears to be bogus, but there’s also no indication that Obama called the family of every soldier, sailor, marine, or airman who died during his presidency (nor, for that matter, that Trump has done so). In anti-Trump precincts, there was immediate fury—first, that he had claimed that some presidents didn’t reach out to families at all, and second, that he’d turned the question of slain soldiers into a matter of oneupmanship with other presidents. Four Americans were dead, the president had golfed rather that attend the return of their coffins, and now here he was making it a political matter.
But by inspiring that immediate fury, Trump had already shifted the conversation away from the question of why the troops were in Niger, and away from the question of why Trump had said nothing about their deaths until asked. Then on Tuesday morning, he picked up on the grain of truth in his original statement—Obama had not called the family of every slain soldier—and pushed it forward.
“As far as other presidents, I don’t know, you could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama? I don’t know what Obama’s policy was,” Trump said on Fox News radio, referring to his chief of staff, John Kelly, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
That has produced a new maelstrom. First, several journalists reported, using unnamed sources, that Obama had not called Kelly. Then others reported, again with unnamed sources, that Kelly sat with First Lady Michelle Obama at a gold-star breakfast in 2011. Still others dug up old comments from Kelly that emphasized how Kelly hadn’t wanted his son discussed publicly. “The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others,” he wrote in an email.
So by Tuesday afternoon, Trump had pushed the conversation even further away from the actual question of the fallen soldiers. He’d begun with a largely false diversion about other presidents’ consolations; then, he focused on the deeply narrow question of whether Obama had called the Kellys. This is a clever trap for media outlets. If they don’t take Trump’s lead and report out whether Obama called Kelly, he’ll bash them for not pursuing questions unfavorable to Obama; if they do take his lead, they’re following him down a rabbit hole. (This does not justify the use of unnamed sources on this story; if current White House staffers or Obama-allied sources want to participate in this volley, why can’t they be named?)
Is Trump’s decision to bring Kelly’s son into the debate tacky and graceless? Of course it is, especially in light of Kelly’s past statements begging superiors not to bring it up. Yet the pundit outrage on Kelly’s behalf is peculiar. He’s a grown man, a retired four-star general, and if he is offended by it, he always has the option to remonstrate with Trump or even to resign. Harping on Trump’s gracelessness is perhaps cathartic for his critics, but it’s only going to make him look bad to people who already dislike him. His fans, by contrast, will see a case of the president being crucified for making a claim—Obama didn’t call every gold-star family—that turned out to be true.
And that’s where things stand now. The debate is now over what Barack Obama did or didn’t do and, to a lesser extent, whether Trump’s response measured up. We still don’t know whether Trump’s letters to the families of the fallen soldiers have actually been sent.
CNN reports that almost two weeks after the deadly firefight, the Pentagon still doesn’t understand what happened, and is conducting a preliminary review to see whether there should be a formal investigation and whether military procedures need to be changed. The president of the United States has made no comment on the deaths of four soldiers except to exculpate himself. Beyond that, a president who promised to pull the United States back from its engagements around the globe hasn’t made any statement to the American people about why Special Forces soldiers were in Niger, why they were out on patrol despite their advisory role, who was responsible for their deaths, or why it’s important for U.S. troops to be in West Africa.
Trump is eager to talk about the troops when he is accusing NFL players of disrespecting them by kneeling during the National Anthem. But conversations about what American troops are doing in places like Niger and why are complicated, difficult, and uncomfortable for Trump and everyone else involved. It’s much easier to snipe about which president’s consolations were most patriotic than to actually talk about the troops as anything more than a signifier.