On Monday, President Donald Trump set off a characteristic firestorm of controversy by making a startling claim about how his predecessors treated the families of U.S. service members slain in combat. Namely, speaking in a rare press conference on the White House lawn, Trump claimed that former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush didn't contact Gold Star families to console them after their loss, a claim contradicted by countless ex-officials, as well as the factual record. It spurred plenty of angry responses, including one from Twitter user, Delilia O'Malley, who shared her own brief story about the loss of a loved on in the armed forces.
A self-described "lifelong Republican who opposes Trump," according to her Twitter bio, O'Malley described meeting former President George W. Bush after the death of her brother, and just how differently it went than Trump's recent claims suggest. O'Malley commented that Bush "listened while I screamed at him" and then "held me as I sobbed," finishing with an barb at the current commander-in-chief.
O'Malley's tweet drew a lot of supportive reactions, as well as some deeply negative ones, a pretty familiar phenomenon for people on social media who run afoul of Trump's many die-hard supporters.
Several people responded to O'Malley's raw, emotive tweet by chastising her for disrespecting the president, or simply tweeting offensive and insulting things at her. She was quite clearly not having it, however, swatting down personal attacks and vitriol as they arose.
On Tuesday morning, Trump both backed off slightly, saying he didn't know Obama's procedure for handling service member deaths, and intensified criticism against himself, by bringing his chief of staff's slain son into the conversation.
Robert Michael Kelly, the son of General John Kelly, died in combat in Afghanistan back in 2010. Defending himself on Tuesday morning in a radio interview with Brian Kilmeade of Fox and Friends, Trump questioned whether Obama had called Kelly after his son's death:
This was again, fake news CNN, they're just a bunch of fakers. So, they asked me that question, and for the most part, to the best of my knowledge, I think I've called every family of somebody that's died, and it's the hardest call to make, and I said it very loud and clear yesterday, the hardest thing for me to do is do that. Now, as far as other representatives, I don't know. I mean, you could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama? You could ask other people. I don't know what Obama's policy was. I write letters, and I also call.
Trump also told Kilmeade he believed he'd called every family of a slain U.S. service member since taking office, although he quickly hedged on that claim, saying he'd called "virtually" all of them.
Joe Davis, director of communications for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told Bustle in a statement:
The VFW respects the private conversations between any president and the families of fallen service members.
Following Trump's reference to Kelly, NBC News reported that a Trump administration official said Kelly received no call from Obama following his son's death. The White House official in question was not named.
The Daily Beast has since reported that the reference to Kelly's late son was approved by White House officials as a line of attack for Trump, suggesting this was a conscious, deliberate strategy, not an off-the-cuff or unplanned remark on Trump's part.
The report, from Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng, notes that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had no comment when asked whether she was the unnamed White House source confirming Trump's claim about Kelly and Obama.
The Daily Beast confirmed that senior White House officials signed off on this specific line of attack as legitimate communications strategy. When The Daily Beast emailed White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to ask if she was an official telling reporters at multiple news outlets that Obama did not call Kelly, she declined to comment on the record.
Trump's behavior towards Gold Star families has been a topic of criticism and scrutiny for a long time. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he drew intense scrutiny and much condemnation for his attacks against the family of the late Capt. Humayun Khan, who died serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004.
Specifically, he criticized Humayun's mother and father, Ghazala and Khizr Khan, for their support for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and insisted during a presidential debate that their son would still be alive if he'd been president (Bustle has reached out to the Khans for comment).
At the time, Trump also suggested that Ghazala had not been "allowed to have anything to say" at her husband's Democratic National Convention speech, clearly invoking an anti-Muslim stereotype. In reality, she declined to speak due to her own intense and overwhelming reactions when reflecting on her son's death or so much as seeing his picture, as she later detailed in an op-ed for The Washington Post.