President Donald Trump, asked Tuesday if he wanted to clarify his remark that his predecessors didn't call the families of military personnel killed in war, invoked his chief of staff, former Marine Gen. John Kelly, whose son was killed in Afghanistan seven years ago.
"I think I've called every family of someone who's died," Trump told Fox News radio host Brian Kilmeade. "As far as other representatives, I don't know. You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?"
In November 2010, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly was killed in a roadside bombing on patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was 29.
U.S. & World
A White House official told NBC News that Obama never called Kelly when his son was killed. But Kelly and his wife were seated at first lady Michelle Obama's table at a 2011 breakfast for Gold Star families in May 2011, a person familiar with it told NBC News.
Kelly was also listed as a guest at White House events honoring U.S. service members and their families in April 2011 and February 2012.
Obama did not immediately respond to NBC News' request for comment. NBC Owned Television Stations has also reached out to the White House to see if Kelly would comment.
Former Vice President Joe Biden told NBC10 that he and Obama regularly spent holidays with Gold Star families.
When Biden was asked how Trump would know what previous administrations and presidents did, he said, "Look I can't explain President Trump."
Obama aides said it was difficult this many years later to determine if he had also called Kelly, and when.
But former Obama spokesman Ned Price, reacted angrily to Trump's comments. "Kelly, a man of honor & decency, should stop this inane cruelty," Price tweeted. "He saw up-close just how — & how much — Obama cared for the fallen's families."
The issue erupted when Trump said in a news conference Monday that he had written letters to the families of four soldiers killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger and planned to call them, crediting himself with taking extra steps in honoring the dead properly.
"Most of them didn't make calls," he said of his predecessors. He said it's possible that Obama "did sometimes" but "other presidents did not call."
For U.S. presidents, meeting the families of military personnel killed in war is about as wrenching as the job gets, and Trump's suggestion that his predecessors fell short in that duty brought a visceral reaction from those who witnessed those grieving encounters.
"He's a deranged animal," Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former deputy chief of staff to President Barack Obama, tweeted about Trump. With an expletive, she called Trump's statement in the Rose Garden a lie.
The record is plain that presidents reached out to families of the dead and to the wounded, often with their presence as well as by letter and phone. The path to Walter Reed and other military hospitals, as well as to the Dover, Delaware, Air Force Base where the remains of fallen soldiers are often brought, is a familiar one to Obama, George W. Bush and others.
Obama's official photographer, Pete Souza, tweeted that he photographed Obama "meeting with hundreds of wounded soldiers, and family members of those killed in action." Others recalled his frequent visits with Gold Star families, and travels to Walter Reed, Dover and other venues with families of the dead and with the wounded.
Retired Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed these contacts, tweeting: "POTUS 43 & 44 and first ladies cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust."
Trump addressed the matter when asked why he had not spoken about the four soldiers killed in Niger. They died when militants thought to be affiliated with the Islamic State group ambushed them while they were patrolling in unarmored trucks with Nigerien troops.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told NBC News that Trump spoke to the four families on Tuesday evening.
"I actually wrote letters individually to the soldiers we're talking about, and they're going to be going out either today or tomorrow," he said earlier Tuesday, meaning he wrote to the families of the fallen soldiers. He did not explain why the letters had not been sent yet, more than a week after the attack.
"If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls," Trump said.
Pressed on that statement later, he said of Obama: "I was told that he didn't often, and a lot of presidents don't. They write letters." He went on: "President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told. ... Some presidents didn't do anything."
Sanders said later that Trump "wasn't criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact." She argued that presidents didn't always call families of those killed in battle: "Sometimes they call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person."
She said anyone claiming a former president had called every family was "mistaken."
Bush, even at the height of two wars, "wrote all the families of the fallen," said Freddy Ford, spokesman for the ex-president. Ford said Bush also called or met "hundreds, if not thousands" of family members of the war dead.
Bush's commitment to writing to all military families of the dead and to reaching out by phone or meeting with many others came despite the enormity of the task. In the Iraq war alone, U.S. combat deaths were highest during his presidency, exceeding 800 each year from 2004 through 2007. The number fell to 313 in Bush's last year in office as the insurgency faded. Bush once said he felt the appropriate way to show his respect was to meet family members in private.
Altogether some 6,900 Americans have been killed in overseas wars since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the overwhelming majority under Bush and Obama. Since Trump took office in January, about two dozen U.S. service members have been killed.
Obama declared an end to combat operations in Iraq in August 2010 and the last U.S. troops were withdrawn in December 2011. As Obama wound down that war, he sent tens of thousands more troops into Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, and the death count mounted. From a total of 155 Americans killed in Afghanistan in 2008, which was Bush's last full year in office, the number jumped to 311 in 2009 and peaked the next year at 498. In all, more than 1,700 died in Afghanistan on Obama's watch.
Among other rituals honoring military families, the Obamas had a "Gold Star" Christmas tree in the White House decorated with hundreds of photos and notes from people who had lost loved ones in war. Gold Star families visited during the holidays, bringing ornaments.
Trump visited Dover early in his presidency, going in February with his daughter Ivanka for the return of the remains of a U.S. Navy SEAL killed during a raid in Yemen, William "Ryan" Owens.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Trump's comments about his predecessors weren't "particularly helpful."
"No doubt in my mind that President Obama suffered when people died on his watch," he said.
NBC's Asher Klein contributed to this report. Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Richard Lardner and Jesse J. Holland in Washington, Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, and Kristen de Groot in Philadelphia contributed to this report.