On Oct. 4, the day that four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were gunned down at the border of Niger and Mali in the deadliest combat incident since President Donald Trump took office, the commander in chief was lighting up Twitter with attacks on the “fake news” media.
The next day, when the remains of the first soldiers reached Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Trump was assailing the “fake news” and warning the country of “the calm before the storm.” What storm, he never did say.
Over that weekend, as the identity of the fourth soldier was disclosed publicly and more details emerged about the incident, Trump was golfing and letting it rip on Twitter about Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the NFL, North Korea, Puerto Rico and, again, alleged media bias.
But a president who revels in providing color commentary on the news said nothing about what happened in Niger for 12 straight days – until Monday in the Rose Garden of the White House, where he was asked by a reporter to explain his uncharacteristic silence.
In his answer, Trump said in his defense that he had written personal letters to their surviving family members and then tried to use the issue to gain a political advantage. Trump leveled a series of false accusations his predecessors, including former president Barack Obama, saying they never or rarely called family members of soldiers who were killed on their watch, when in fact they regularly did both.
As anger swelled, Trump continued to attempt to bolster his broader claim on Tuesday by invoking the death of Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, the son of current White House chief of staff John Kelly who was killed in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan.
White House officials have not explained why Trump took so long to comment publicly about the Niger ambush, but said Tuesday that he was regularly briefed on the incident during that period. They declined to provide details.
The White House did not receive from the Defense Department detailed information about the four dead soldiers until Oct. 12, and that information was not fully verified by the White House Military Office until Monday, according to a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about the internal process.
At that point, this official said, Trump was cleared to reach out to the four families – both in letters that were mailed Tuesday and in personal phone calls to family members on Tuesday.
“He offered condolences on behalf of a grateful nation and assured them their family’s extraordinary sacrifice to the country will never be forgotten,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
In his call with Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, Trump told her, “He knew what was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway,” according to the account of Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., who was riding in a limousine with Johnson when the president called and heard the conversation on speakerphone.
Wilson recalled in an interview with The Washington Post that Johnson broke down in tears. “He made her cry,” Wilson said. The congresswoman said she wanted to take the phone and “curse him out,” but that the Army sergeant holding the phone would not let her speak to the president.
The White House neither confirmed nor denied Wilson’s account. “The President’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private,” a White House official said in a statement.
Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary and White House chief of staff under Democratic presidents, said Trump should have more quickly conveyed the “deepest regrets of the country for the families that lost their loved ones.” He put some of the responsibility for Trump’s slow response on his staff.
“Somebody screwed up here, OK?” Panetta said. “You don’t let that amount of time pass when our men and women in uniform have been killed.”
Trump did not serve in the military – he sought and received several draft deferments during the Vietnam War – and has drawn pointed criticism in the past for his comments about military heroes.
As a presidential candidate, Trump mocked the service of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and feuded with the Gold Star parents of Army captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.
And on his first full day as president, Trump used a speech before the Central Intelligence Agency’s wall of stars honoring intelligence officers who died in service to air his personal grievances, including over media coverage of the size of his inaugural crowd.
Peter Wehner, an adviser and speechwriter in former president George W. Bush’s White House, said communicating empathy and compassion has been for Trump like speaking “a foreign language.”
“Part of being a president is at moments being pastor in chief, dispensing grace and understanding and giving voice to sorrow, tragedy and loss,” Wehner said. “But he’s a person who’s missing an empathy gene.”
Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Bush and McCain, said he was surprised by Trump’s 12-day silence on the Niger attack.
“There is no issue too small for him to comment on,” Schmidt said. “He tweets at all hours of the morning and night on every conceivable subject. He has time to insult, to degrade, to demean, always. But once again, you see this moral obtusity in the performance of his duties as commander in chief.”
Still, the brother of one of the fallen soldiers, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29, said he and his family have not been bothered by Trump’s comments.
William Wright said Tuesday afternoon in an interview that his parents were expecting a phone call from the president soon, and that his family would consider it a “great honor” to speak with him. If Trump had called earlier, Wright said, the family would not have been ready for it.
“It’s not something we’re upset by and it’s not something we are offended by,” Wright said. “This is a devastating experience to go through, and we have been blessed with a lot of support. It’s our hope that everyone can rally around the families of the fallen soldiers.”
Sanders defended Trump’s Monday comments, saying the president was not criticizing his predecessors “but stating a fact” that presidents sometimes have called family members, sometimes have sent letters and other times have met in person.
Inside the West Wing, Trump’s advisers have been furious with what they consider unfair criticism of their boss’ comments leveled by former Obama staffers. Privately, they have accused the media of assuming the worst in Trump – jumping to a conclusion that he does not respect military members because he waited so long to comment on the four killed Green Berets. One top aide argued that a “tone and veil of hate” has defined the coverage.
With the war against terrorism continuing well into its second decade, the number of battlefield deaths has greatly declined, making the loss of four soldiers on a single day all the more significant. So far in 2017, about 30 service members have died, compared to at least 346 hostile deaths in all of 2009 and 456 in all of 2010, which were Obama’s first two years in office.
Wartime presidents historically have wrestled with how often they reach out to the bereaved, which is an important part of leadership, and how they maintain their own emotional health by not letting personal grief overwhelm their judgment, said Eliot A. Cohen, a senior State Department official in the Bush administration.
“If Franklin D. Roosevelt had personally contacted the family members of every service member who fell in World War II, he would have been so overwhelmed emotionally he could not have made any decisions,” Cohen said.
Panetta said each president has his own way of expressing condolences. “The most important test is whether it comes from the heart,” he said. “It’s not so much whether he decides to do a letter or a phone call. You don’t do this by the numbers. You do it by what you think can most appropriately reflect the nation’s concern.”
This month’s deadly operation in Niger was unusual and highly sensitive, and the military has not yet disclosed many details. It was something of a surprise that the Special Forces unit came under fire – and the remains of one of the fallen soldiers, Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, were not recovered until two days afterward.
Marine Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, told reporters on Oct. 12 that the ambush marked the first time in at least six months that the U.S. military had faced enemy fire in the region.
McKenzie said the operation was meant to be an outreach effort in which the U.S. soldiers went out alongside local forces, and was “not designed to be a combat patrol.” But he defended the support the soldiers had, saying that there was a “pretty good level of planning” and that French forces responded within 30 minutes with helicopter air support.
The general said the Pentagon believes there is some connection to an affiliate of the Islamic State terrorist group in the attack.
U.S. Africa Command first disclosed late Oct. 4 that U.S. troops had come under fire in Niger, and confirmed the following morning that three U.S. soldiers – Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, 35; Jeremiah Johnson, 39; and Wright – were killed.
On Oct. 6, the Pentagon disclosed that U.S. troops also had recovered the remains of Johnson. The military did not explain how Johnson was separated from other U.S. forces in the mission, a development that rarely occurs in a military that prides itself on never leaving service members behind on the battlefield.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on Oct. 11 that he “completely rejected” any notion that the rescue effort for the unit was slow, and he promised that the military will examine the operation.
“We’re not complacent,” he said. “We’re going to be better.”
Sanders twice extended thoughts and prayers on behalf of the administration to the family members of the dead soldiers – in her press briefings on Oct. 5 and 6 – but Trump issued no statement echoing his press secretary.
Bonnie Carroll, who founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said she has had good experiences with several presidents when it comes to mourning the loss of fallen service members.
“While there is no one way to acknowledge the death,” she said in a statement, “what is important for the family is that the president acknowledges the life and service of their loved one, and expresses gratitude on behalf of the nation.”
The Washington Post’s Alex Horton contributed to this report.