WASHINGTON ― In the world of President Donald Trump, he has paid his respects to “many, many” returning soldiers killed in the line of duty, with daughter and top presidential aide Ivanka Trump adding that “each time” she has stood by his side at one of these ceremonies, it has hardened his resolve to bring troops home.
In the real world, Trump has traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware exactly four times ― fewer than half as many times as his vice president ― and avoided going at all for nearly two years after getting berated for his incompetence by the father of a slain Navy SEAL, according to a former White House aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bill Owens, the father of William “Ryan” Owens, refused to shake Trump’s hand at that Feb. 1, 2017, encounter, the aide said, and then told Trump that he was responsible for his son’s death for approving the disastrous raid in Yemen without bothering to understand the risks.
“He refused to go back for two years, he was so rattled,” the aide said, adding that the main reason Trump had approved the raid just five days after taking office was that predecessor Barack Obama had refused to do so.
What’s more, Trump made the decision at a social dinner that included his son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, and then-chief strategist Stephen Bannon, rather than his National Security Council staff.
“You can count on one hand the number of times Donald Trump has been to Dover,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of the progressive political group VoteVets and an Iraq War veteran. “There simply is no bottom when it comes to what he’ll lie about. I wish there was more outrage about Trump lying about the dignified transfer of the fallen for political reasons, because as a veteran it really disgusts me.”
According to a HuffPost review of Air Force records, there have been 96 “dignified transfers,” as the military refers to them, at Dover since the start of Trump’s presidency, which saw the return of 127 Americans killed overseas. Trump has been there for four of the transfers, which brought home the bodies of nine soldiers.
“It’s one thing to not go. It’s another thing to lie about it,” added Fred Wellman, a retired 22-year Army officer and helicopter pilot who served in Desert Storm and who now works with the anti-Trump group The Lincoln Project.
He said he recalls a visit by former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to meet families of troops killed in Iraq. “They got yelled at. And Mr. and Mrs. Bush took it,” Wellman said. “He felt it was his duty to accept that. Obviously Mr. Trump doesn’t feel that way. Mr. Trump doesn’t take responsibility for anything.”
He treats it like a tourist stop. 'Hey, Jon Voight, I get to greet dead guys. Want to come?’ He might as well be in his sweaty golf clothes when he swings by Dover. Fred Wellman, retired Army officer
Trump, nevertheless, during an Aug. 18 news conference claimed he had been to enough “dignified transfer” ceremonies in his three years in office to be present for the return of “many” soldiers. “I greet men and women coming home, and coming home after they’ve been hit. I’ve also greeted many, many at Dover — greeted many bodies coming back in,” he said.
His elder daughter built on this fabrication nine days later during her remarks at the Republican National Convention, which Trump chose to stage ― despite federal law prohibiting it ― at the White House. “I’ve stood by my father’s side at Dover Air Force Base as he’s received our fallen heroes, and each time it has steeled his resolve to finally stop ― finally stop, the endless foreign wars,” she said.
In fact, she has stood at her father’s side only twice ― the first being his very first trip, to receive the body of Ryan Owens.
White House officials did not attempt to explain Trump and his daughter’s apparent exaggerations about the issue and instead defended, on condition of anonymity, his handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There is progress in Afghan peace talks. The U.S. will soon have the fewest troops in Afghanistan in nearly a decade,” a top aide said.
Notwithstanding his dressing down from the SEAL’s father, Trump used Ryan Owen’s death and the raid that killed him in his first address to a joint session of Congress four weeks later. He brought in Owen’s widow, Carryn, and said “Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he’s very happy, because I think he just broke a record,” referring to the applause in the chamber. The remarks won him high praise from some television commentators, including one who declared that it was the moment when Trump had finally become president.
Trump did not return to Dover until Jan. 19, 2019, when he was there for the arrival of the bodies of four soldiers killed in a suicide bomb attack in Syria. He went again on Nov. 21, 2019, for the return of two soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Accompanying him on that visit were his wife, Melania, and actor and supporter Jon Voight. It is unclear why Trump brought Voight.
His fourth and final visit was this Feb. 10, when he and Vice President Mike Pence together received the bodies of two service members killed in an ambush by an Afghan soldier.
That visit was the second one Ivanka Trump joined. It included a host of others who, like the first daughter, had just attended Trump’s campaign rally in New Hampshire, including Pence, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), White House social media director Dan Scavino and Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband.
“He treats it like a tourist stop,” Wellman said. “‘Hey, Jon Voight, I get to greet dead guys. Want to come?’ He might as well be in his sweaty golf clothes when he swings by Dover.”
Since Feb. 10, there have been 17 dignified transfers at Dover for 18 killed service members. Neither Trump nor Pence has attended any of them.
The new lies about receiving fallen soldiers are not Trump’s first on the topic.
At an October 2017 news conference, Trump falsely claimed that previous presidents, particularly Obama, had not taken the time to call the family members of fallen soldiers. It is unclear whether he was intentionally lying or simply making up assertions without knowing the facts. When he was asked in a follow-up question why he falsely impugned Obama and others, he said he didn’t really know what Obama did but claimed, “That’s what I was told.”
Bill Owens, meanwhile, recently appeared in a VoteVets ad urging Americans to vote against Trump. “Just five days into his presidency, Trump ordered Ryan’s SEAL team into Yemen. Not from the Situation Room with all the intelligence assembled, but sitting across a dinner table from Steve Bannon,” Owens says in the ad. “There was no vital interest at play. Just Donald Trump playing big-man-going-to-war.”
Owens declined HuffPost’s requests for comment for this article.