Adding to the continued drama over whether past presidents have called the families of fallen soldiers, a senior White House official told ABC News today that then-President Obama did not call John Kelly, now the White House chief of staff, after the death of his son in 2010.
The retired general’s son, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, died in action while serving with the Marines in Afghanistan.
Kelly and his wife attended a breakfast for Gold Star families at the White House in 2011 and sat at first lady Michelle Obama‘s table, a person familiar with the breakfast told ABC News.
But the breakfast, scheduled to be hosted by the Obamas, was six months after the death of Kelly’s son. It’s unclear whether President Obama contacted Kelly about his son in any way prior to this.
President Obama’s office did not respond today to a request for comment on whether he contacted Kelly in another way.
The White House comment comes a day after President Donald Trump made the unsubstantiated statement that “most” past presidents, including Obama, did not make calls to the families of fallen soldiers.
“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,” Trump said at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden Monday.
When asked about his comment that Obama didn’t call the families of the fallen again later in the news conference, Trump said, “I don’t know if he did. I was told that he didn’t often. And a lot of presidents don’t; they write letters. I do.”
“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,” he added.
“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.”
The question came up during the news conference in reference to the four U.S. soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger.
A former Obama official said Trump’s Monday Rose Garden statement – and not specifically addressing the claim about Kelly — was “unequivocally wrong.”
“President Obama engaged families of the fallen and wounded warriors throughout his presidency through calls, letters, visits to Section 60 at Arlington, visits to Walter Reed, visits to Dover, and regular meetings with Gold Star Families at the White House and across the country,” the former Obama official said in a statement to ABC News.
Freddy Ford, a spokesman for former President George W. Bush, also issued a statement noting his outreach to the families of fallen soldiers.
“President Bush wrote all the families of the fallen, and called and/or met privately with hundreds if not thousands,” Ford said in the statement, issued Monday.
An aide to former President Bill Clinton also called the statement false. “He did call the families of fallen soldiers while in office,” this official told ABC News.