President Donald Trump, in a personal phone call to a grieving military father, offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened, the father said.
Chris Baldridge, the father of Army Cpl. Dillon Baldridge, told The Washington Post that Trump called him at his home in Zebulon, North Carolina, a few weeks after his 22-year-old son and two fellow soldiers were gunned down by an Afghan police officer in a suspected insider attack June 10. Their phone conversation lasted about 15 minutes, Baldridge said, and centred for a time on the father's struggle with the manner in which his son was killed.
"I said, 'Me and my wife would rather our son died in trench warfare,' " Baldridge said. "I feel like he got murdered over there."
Trump's offer of US$25,000 adds another dimension to the president's relations with Gold Star families, an honorific given to those whose loved ones die while serving in support of the nation's wars. The disclosure follows questions about how often the president has called or written to grieving military families.
The Washington Post contacted the White House about Baldridge's account on Wednesday morning. Officials declined to discuss the events in detail.
But in a statement Wednesday afternoon, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said: "The cheque has been sent. It's disgusting that the media is taking something that should be recognised as a generous and sincere gesture, made privately by the President, and using it to advance the media's biased agenda."
Trump said this week that he has "called every family of somebody that's died, and it's the hardest call to make." At least 20 Americans have been killed in action since he became commander in chief in January. The Washington Post interviewed the families of 13 and found that his interactions with them vary. About half had received phone calls, they said. The others said they had not heard from the president.
In his call with Trump, Baldridge, a construction worker, expressed frustration with the military's survivor benefits programme. Because his ex-wife was listed as their son's beneficiary, she was expected to receive the Pentagon's US$100,000 death gratuity - even though "I can barely rub two nickels together," he told Trump.
The president's response shocked him.
"He said, 'I'm going to write you a cheque out of my personal account for US$25,000,' and I was just floored," Baldridge said. "I could not believe he was saying that, and I wish I had it recorded because the man did say this. He said, 'No other president has ever done something like this,' but he said, 'I'm going to do it.' "
The president has faced worsening backlash since details emerged of his phone call Tuesday with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed October 4 alongside three other US soldiers in Niger. After not addressing the incident for 12 days, Trump on Monday falsely claimed that previous presidents never or rarely called the families of fallen service members. In fact, they did so regularly.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, said Trump called Johnson's widow, Myeshia Johnson, on Tuesday and said her husband "knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway." Wilson was riding in a limousine with the wife and said she heard the conversation on speakerphone.
Trump denied the allegation Wednesday morning. But the fallen soldier's childhood guardian, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Washington Post that she also was in the car when the White House called, and said that "President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband."
In all, seven Gold Star families contacted by The Post said they have had phone conversations with Trump. Most said they appreciated the gesture. Four families said they have not received a call and were upset. One said Trump had not called but that they knew the late soldier would not want his death politicised. An additional family said that it had corresponded with the White House but declined to elaborate.
The Associated Press reached one other family, that of Army Spec. Etienne Murphy, 22. His mother said she received neither a call nor a letter from the president.
Baldridge said that after the president made his US$25,000 offer, he joked with Trump that he would bail him out if he got arrested for helping. The White House has done nothing else other than send a condolence letter from Trump, the father said.
"I opened it up and read it, and I was hoping to see a cheque in there, to be honest," the father said. "I know it was kind of far-fetched thinking. But I was like, 'Damn, no cheque.' Just a letter saying 'I'm sorry.' "
The experiences of other Gold Star families were more typical.
The family of Sgt. Cameron Thomas, a 23-year-old Army Ranger killed April 27 in a raid on the Islamic State in Afghanistan, met with Vice President Pence at Dover Air Force in Delaware as the soldier's casket arrived from overseas. They had a 20-minute call with Trump about two weeks later, said Thomas's father, Andre.
"He gave his condolences and made some comments how different his paperwork was when it went across his desk," the father said in a phone interview. "Said most of the paperwork he sees in these types of death says, 'He's respected by his peers.' He said Cameron's stuck out because it said he was respected and loved by his peers."
The grieving father said he then spoke at length about his son's love for the Army and his determination to become a Ranger, a distinction he earned at age 19. About midway through the phone call, the elder Thomas shared with Trump that he had voted for him, and "that got him on another tangent" that extended the conversation for about 10 minutes," the father said.
The president then spoke about his work in office and "the strides that he's made in the short time he'd been president," Thomas said.
Thomas said the family was touched by the phone call. The father of a Mormon family with 12 children, seven of them adopted, he was concerned about the attention and publicity that his son's death could bring. But talking to the president helped him put things in perspective and realise that his son "belonged to the country."
"Politics is politics, and maybe some people wouldn't care to hear from him," he said. "But putting politics aside, it does mean a lot to a family, their child."
William Lee, 40, shared a similar experience, saying that his entire family spoke by phone with Trump after his brother, Army 1st Lt. Weston Lee, 25, was killed in Mosul, Iraq, on April 29.
"He was very cordial nice and very nice," Lee said, of the call, which he said lasted about five or six minutes.
Lee said the president spoke to them about "how impressive my brother was, how he had read the reports, reading everything about Weston, and he could tell how amazing he was. And talking to us, he could tell how strong we were and how strong he must have been. We were all pretty devastated.
"It meant something the leader of our nation calling us and showing the honour and respect to my brother that I feel my brother earned," the brother said, his voice cracking.
Quinn Butler, whose 27-year-old brother, Aaron, was killed in August by an explosion in Afghanistan, said that their parents received numerous letters from generals and other leaders, but no call or letter from Trump.
Aaron Butler, a Special Forces soldier, was very supportive of Trump and appreciative for what he has done for the military, his brother said. The soldier believed that Trump helped initiate some changes that have enabled commanders to make more progress against the militants in Afghanistan.
Quinn Butler said that he was surprised that his parents did not receive a call from Trump, considering his brother was a "very elite soldier, a soldier who had given everything." But he said that Aaron would not want his death politicised.
"I think that Aaron would be very upset if anything was manipulated to show that he didn't support Trump and that he wasn't appreciative of the things that he did do, because he was," the brother said.
Euvince Brooks's son, Sgt. Roshain E. Brooks, 30, was killed August 13 in Iraq. He has not heard from the White House. The president's claim this week that he had called every military family to lose a son or daughter only upset the Brooks family more.
Brooks said that after watching the news on Tuesday night he wanted to set up a Twitter account to try and get the President's attention.
"I said to my daughter, 'Can you teach me to tweet, so I can tweet at the president and tell him he's a liar?'" he said. "You know when you hear people lying, and you want to fight? That's the way I feel last night. He's a damn liar."