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Gold Star Families Getting Rushed Condolence Letters

The White House tried to quickly make the president’s overstatement accurate

Myeshia Johnson kisses the casket of her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson, during his burial service in Hollywood, Florida, on Saturday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Myeshia Johnson kisses the casket of her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson, during his burial service in Hollywood, Florida, on Saturday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A substantial number of families who have lost military servicemembers during the Trump presidency had not been contacted as of this weekend by President Donald Trump, despite his claim to the contrary several days earlier, according to news accounts.

And some of the families that the White House did contact were reached only in recent days by apparently rushed condolence letters that were sent in some cases months after the families lost their loved ones, the reports said.

Roll Call disclosed Friday that the White House had asked the Pentagon on Oct. 17, through emails, to provide “ASAP” a list of those killed in the line of duty and their families’ contact information. The email exchanges came just hours after the president had said in a radio interview that he had already contacted virtually all those families.

The Pentagon-White House emails made clear that the purpose of obtaining the list was to ensure the president contacted all of the so-called Gold Star families, just as he said he’d done.

News accounts over the past week — including from The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The Atlantic — corroborate an apparent White House effort to quickly and retroactively transform the president’s overstatement into an accurate version of events.

The reporting showed, first, that the president had not contacted virtually all the families, as he had said. Specifically, of 25 families contacted at last count, 11 had not heard from the president by telephone or letter, according to the combined reports of news organizations.

What’s more, at least four of the families that had been contacted by the White House received presidential letters only in recent days — after questions about presidential contacts with Gold Star families had begun to swirl.

The four families in question lost sons in the Aug. 21 collision between the USS John S. McCain, a Navy destroyer, and a commercial vessel in waters east of Singapore.

Members of three of the four families told The Atlantic they got the White House letters via FedEx overnight delivery late last week, two months after the crash and a couple of days after the controversy had engulfed news websites.

Presidents are under no obligation to personally contact, in writing or by phone, the survivors of deceased military personnel. But contacting those families by both methods has been a practice of many past presidents, notwithstanding Trump’s argument that he was more diligent about it than his predecessors.

The furor over the Gold Star families erupted last week after Trump had remained silent for nearly two weeks over the death of four U.S. soldiers in an Oct. 4 ambush in the west African country of Niger.

Once reporters began to ask the White House about the silence, it led to questions about Trump’s contacts with military families.

Trump finally reached out by phone on Oct. 17 to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the soldiers killed in Niger. Myeshia Johnson, the soldier’s widow, on Monday criticized the president’s words on the call as insensitive. She said Trump had seemed to forget her husband’s first name.

That version of events backed up comments made last week by Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, who had been present with the Johnson family and heard part of the call on speaker phone.

Trump and his top aides — including White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly — have waged a war of words with the Johnson family and Wilson right up through Monday.

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