Some Democrats and their liberal media allies are referring to the deaths of four U.S. Green Berets in Niger as “Trump’s Benghazi” and questioning the need for troops there, ignoring that it was President Barack Obama’s decision in 2013 to deploy more military forces to northwest Africa.
The soldiers killed in an ambush by Islamist extremists on Oct. 4 were part of a U.S. contingent in Niger, where Mr. Obama initially deployed 100 soldiers in February 2013 to conduct drone surveillance and to help French troops train and advise local forces in the fight against terrorists groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State in Greater Sahara.
The partisan fallout over the deaths prompted White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, a retired Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan, to deliver a blistering rebuke of Democratic Rep. Frederica S. Wilson of Florida on Thursday, saying he was “stunned and heartbroken” that the “selfish” lawmaker went on TV to politicize Mr. Trump’s phone call of condolences to the widow of one of the slain soldiers.
“It stuns me that a member of Congress listened in to that conversation,” Mr. Kelly told reporters. “I thought at least that was sacred.”
Ms. Wilson said she and the family of Sgt. La David Johnson were horrified that Mr. Trump told the widow her dead husband “knew what he was getting into.”
Mr. Kelly, struggling at times to control his fury at the White House press briefing podium, recounted the advice he gave to Mr. Trump when the president asked him how to make the difficult phone calls to families of the fallen. He told the story of how Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered the news to Mr. Kelly in 2010 that his Marine son, Robert, had been killed when he stepped on a landmine on patrol in Afghanistan.
He said Gen. Dunford told him at the time that his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed.”
“He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent,” Mr. Kelly said, recalling his friend’s words about volunteering to serve. “He knew what the possibilities were. When he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth — his friends.”
Mr. Kelly explained, “That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day.”
“In his way, [Mr. Trump] tried to express that opinion, that [the fallen soldier] is a brave man, a fallen hero, who knew what he was getting into because he enlisted, and he was exactly where he wanted to be,” Mr. Kelly said. “That was the message that was transmitted.”
The chief of staff said he was so angered by Ms. Wilson’s criticisms of the president on Wednesday that he visited Arlington National Cemetery, where his son and many of his other brothers in arms are buried.
“When I listened to this woman and what she was saying, what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go to walk among the finest men and women on this Earth,” Mr. Kelly said. “I went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there, because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”
He issued a public plea on Thursday not to let an “empty barrel” such as Ms. Wilson erode the sanctity of a soldier making the ultimate sacrifice.
“When I grew up, a lot of things were sacred in this country,” Mr. Kelly said. “Women were sacred, were looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore, as we’ve seen from recent cases [an apparent reference to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein]. Life, the dignity of life was sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left at the [Democratic National] convention over the summer. I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that might be sacred. Let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society, a young man or young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country, let’s try to somehow keep that sacred. It eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.”
At the Democratic convention last year, a Gold Star father, Khizr Khan, who is Muslim, spoke in prime time to criticize Mr. Trump’s proposed ban of Muslim immigrants.
Since Mr. Obama’s decision to send more troops to Niger four years ago, Washington has deployed a total of 800 soldiers, operated a drone base in the capital city of Niamey and has started to build another drone base at a cost of about $100 million.
The origins of the U.S. military involvement in the region seem to escape liberals such as Ms. Wilson, the Florida Democrat who has called the Green Beret deaths “Trump’s Benghazi,” and MSNBC contributor Joy Reid, who tweeted on Thursday, “Today is another good day to ask: why are hundreds of U.S. troops in Niger and why did four special forces soldiers die there?”
Said Mr. Kelly, “They’re there working with partners, all across Africa, teaching them how to be better soldiers, teaching them how to respect human rights, teaching them how to fight ISIS so that we don’t have to send our soldiers and Marines there in the thousands,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
The Pentagon is reviewing the circumstances of how the special forces were ambushed but has provided few details yet. Defense Secretary James Mattis said contact with the enemy “was considered unlikely,” but that U.S. forces understand the risks of such missions.
“It’s part of the danger that our troops face in these counterterrorism campaigns,” Mr. Mattis said.
Asked if the U.S. might increase its military posture in the region, Mr. Mattis replied, “I don’t tell the enemy what we’re doing.”
A senior Trump administration official said Thursday the attack isn’t likely to change the U.S. mission significantly because the sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel is still viewed as a key battleground against Islamist extremists.
“As far as we’re concerned right now, the mission in the Sahel is important because there’s al Qaeda there,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Even before Mr. Obama beefed up the U.S. military presence in the region, administrations dating back to President Bill Clinton had been sending small special forces teams to the Sahel to advise local forces fighting Islamist militants who moved south after losing the civil war in Algeria in the late 1990s, said Alice Friend, a specialist on African security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We’ve been doing these low-profile, small-footprint missions for a very long time,” she said. “The Clinton administration did it, the [George W.] Bush administration did it, and the Obama administration as well.”
Jim Phillips, a national security specialist at The Heritage Foundation, said the U.S. military presence in the Sahel is still considered important.
“It’s devoted to combatting the spread of ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups,” Mr. Phillips said. “Niger is on the southern edge of Libya, where a lot of these groups are operating. Niger borders Libya, Nigeria and Mali, all of which have had tremendous problems with Islamist extremism.”
He said one concern is that the government in Niger has placed “political restrictions” on the use of airstrikes against Islamist militants. “That may be something that needs to be looked into to avoid this kind of thing in the future,” he said.
• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.