Those comments join Trump with many of his predecessors, who have also spoken publicly about the burden of sending troops into battle, and the wrenching process of speaking with the families of slain servicemembers. But then Trump went on to suggest that other presidents hadn’t done what he did.
“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,” he said. “I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m 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 like a little bit of time to pass.”
NBC’s Peter Alexander challenged Trump on that claim a few minutes later in the press conference, and the president softened his claim, at least with regard to Obama.
“I don’t know if he did. I was told that he didn’t often. A lot of presidents don’t. They write letters. I do a combination of both. Sometimes it’s a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “President Obama I think probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn’t, I don’t know, that’s what I was told. Other presidents did not call, they’re write letters, and some presidents didn’t do either.”
This is classic Trump rhetoric. Any time he is challenged on any action, he promptly compares his own record to past presidents. He doesn’t require that the comparison be true. Having claimed that Obama didn’t call families of slain soldiers, Trump promptly backed down—he didn’t argue that Alexander was wrong, he just changed his claim.
There was immediate outcry, from aides to various former presidents. Ari Fleischer, press secretary to President George W. Bush, told HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel that Bush wrote letters to families and often met with them in person. Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former aide to Obama, tweeted that it’s “a fucking lie … to say President Obama (or past presidents) didn't call the family members of soldiers” killed in action. Tommy Vietor, a former Obama spokesman, wrote in an email that the 44th president “spent time with families of the fallen and wounded warriors throughout his presidency through letters, calls, visits to section 60 at Arlington and regular meetings with gold star families.”
It’s not hard to see where Trump might have gotten this idea. He has on multiple occasions repeated false information disseminated through bogus news outlets, including the claim that Obama was not born in the United States and did not have a birth certificate. In 2012, for example, the Trump-friendly blog The Gateway Pundit claimed that Obama used an autopen to sign letters to the families of slain soldiers, a claim the White House denied.
Whether Trump intended it this way or not, his strange, untrue, and apparently unpremeditated attack on past presidents was a diversion from the issue at hand: Why were the soldiers in Niger, and why hadn’t he spoken about it sooner? This is a pattern with Trump, in which he manages to say something so inflammatory, or so untrue, or both, that it obscures the central question.