President Donald Trump used the death in combat of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s son to make a political point Tuesday after Kelly made efforts to keep the event out of the limelight.
“You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?” Trump said during an interview with Fox News Radio on Tuesday. “I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died,” he told host Brian Kilmeade.
Kelly’s son, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed instantly by a land mine in 2010 during a patrol in Afghanistan.
Trump defended himself in the radio interview after former officials and soldiers’ families pushed back against his claim Monday that “if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls” to the relatives of fallen soldiers.
“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,” Trump said during a press conference at the White House flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
A White House official told the Associated Press that President Barack Obama did not call Kelly after his son died. However, visitor records at the White House show Kelly attended a breakfast President Barack Obama held for Gold Star families six months after his son’s death, the AP reported Wednesday. Kelly’s family sat at Michelle Obama’s table, a source familiar with the breakfast told the newswire.
Kelly, a retired Marine general who served under Obama, has tried to keep his son’s death from the public eye. Four days after his son was killed, Kelly gave a speech in St. Louis honoring two other Marines who died in combat. Kelly didn’t mention his son and he asked the officer who introduced him not to mention him either, according to The Washington Post.
Kelly, who initially served as Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security, has not spoken out to defend Trump’s claims about past presidents. A Department of Homeland Security official told the Post Tuesday that Kelly is very sensitive to his son’s death being politicized.
After former officials and families disputed his claims during the press conference Monday, Trump backtracked when he was pressed by reporters. “President Obama, I think probably did sometimes [call], and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told,” Trump said.
George W. Bush, Obama and their wives “cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust,” tweeted retired Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Monday.
During a call Tuesday with the grieving widow of a soldier killed on October 4 during an ambush by a group in Niger affiliated with the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), President Trump told her that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson told CNN. Wilson said she was with the family and heard part of the call.
“I did two tours in combat as an infantry officer and I never met a soldier who thought dying was a reasonable result of their service,” tweeted Brandon Friedman, a former serviceman.
After a soldier is killed in action, Friedman wrote, “no one in the military ever, EVER, says ‘he knew what he signed up for.’ Instead they reflect.”
More from Newsweek