This is an uncomfortable topic. But when I came into the office this morning, CNN was interviewing the parents of Army Specialist Etienne Murphy about their son. It was a shattering interview. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder whether it isn’t exploitative for networks to put these families on camera at all. It seemed important to Etienne’s mother to read a statement she’d written about her experience. And if you’re going to do such interviews, the CNN host handled the interview with great sympathy and tact. The Murphys, like other families, had never received a call or any contact from the President.
But it also occurred to me: a lot of the relatives who received calls seem to be white and a number of ones who didn’t or had bad experiences seem to be black.
This morning pic.twitter.com/xCRLn0vUP4
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) October 19, 2017
Now, this was based not on any systematic look at the families involved. It was just an impressionistic sense I got from being immersed in the news over the last 48 to 72 hours. So I tried to look a bit more closely, looking up details about all the military fatalities I could find, the race of the deceased and what I could find if anything about contact from President Trump. There are too many things we don’t know and too small a sample size to say anything definitive. But that pattern does appear to hold up based on the publicly available information.
The Washington Post reports that at least 20 Americans have been killed in action since the President took office in January. In their article from yesterday they reported they’d been able to make contact with 13 families and “about” half received calls and half did not. I went to icasualties.org and counted 22 deaths in the Afghan and Iraqi theaters. (The latter includes deaths in Yemen and Syria, where Etienne Murphy died.) The iCasualty number doesn’t include any of the fatalities in Niger. And the counts are complicated by the fact that some count only hostile fire deaths versus accidents of one sort or another in war zones. Regardless, it’s probably fair to say between 20 and 25 military fatalities that might normally be contacted in some fashion by the President since Trump took office.
Neither of these counts includes the 10 sailors killed on the USS John S McCain following a collision on Aug. 21 or the seven sailors killed in the separate collision of the USS Fitzgerald on June 17. The mother of John Henry Hoagland III, who died in the McCain accident, said she received a letter from the President but no call.
An AP article from today, using the much broader measure of “people who died in military services” since Trump became President, came up with 43 fatalities. Of those who would answer the question, “relatives of nine said they had heard from Trump by phone or mail. Relatives of nine others said they haven’t.”
Race in America is obviously much more complicated than what someone looks like. But I went through the list of names from iCasualty and looked each man and woman up. Mostly I looked at their obituaries at Militarytimes.com. From an admittedly imprecise visual inspection, I came up with 5 out of the 22 from the Iraq and Afghan theaters were either African-American or biracial: Sergeant Roshain Brooks, Specialist Etienne Murphy, Specialist Allen Stigler, Jr., Specialist Christopher Michael Harris and Sergeant Jonathan Michael Hunter. A sixth African American man, Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Martin, died in the USS Fitzgerald collision.
I can find no information about Stigler or whether his family received any contact. Martin’s father, Darrold Martin, talked to local press about his grief over his son’s death at the time. But I see no reporting about whether he received any communication from the President. None of the four others appear to have been contacted by the President.
Here are press notations I’ve found about the other three beside Etienne Murphy, the son of the couple in the video above.
Jonathon Hunter (who appears to be the child of a biracial marriage)
After Army Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter died in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan in August, his family was told to expect a call from Trump. But it didn’t happen. Hunter, 23, from Columbus, Indiana, died 32 days into his first deployment since joining the Army in 2014.
Mark Hunter, his father, said a military casualty officer informed the family that Trump would call and the family was let down when he didn’t.
“Disappointed that he at least didn’t call and thank me for my son and our ultimate sacrifice,” Hunter said. “That’s all I wanted to hear. He didn’t have to say nothing else. That’s all I wanted to hear. From him — not the vice president.”
After Army Spc. Christopher Michael Harris, 25, of Jackson Springs, North Carolina, was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan in August, the White House offered to set up a call but “it fell through” and no letter came from the president, either, said his widow, Brittany Harris.
The Brooklyn dad of a soldier killed in Iraq two months ago blasted President Trump as a cold-hearted con artist on Wednesday.
Uvince Brooks, 58, said his family hasn’t received a call or a condolence letter from the White House since 30-year-old Army Sgt. Roshain Brooks lost his life Aug. 13 to an artillery blast.
“This guy is a liar,” the distraught dad said of Trump. “When I heard what he said, it got me so mad. I called my daughter and said, ‘Can you teach me to tweet? I wanna tweet at Trump.’ That’s the only way to reach him.”
Now, there are also the families of white military personnel who also haven’t gotten calls. There’s Aaron Butler from Monticello, Utah. His family has not received any contact. The family said it’s ‘not complaining’ as the AP put it and, according to a family spokesman, “is very careful that they do not want to be pulled into a partisan slugfest.”
Then there’s the family of Alex Missildine. Missildine’s stepmother Jodie declined to say whether they’d heard from the President: “We will not speak ill of a president who adores his troops.”
Is this enough information, even a large enough sample size, to draw a firm judgment? I don’t think so. It is also clearly the case that the process was haphazard for everyone and pretty organized. Trump had what seems to have been a good conversation with Chris Baldridge, promised to send him a check for $25,000 and then forgot about it. That level of disorganization is in line with everything we know about the Trump White House, especially before John Kelly took over as Chief of Staff. But it’s hard to ignore that the families who heard nothing seem to include all the African-American families we have any information about. And to be clear, many of these families report hear from Army generals and other military personnel. Hunter’s family in Indiana heard from Vice President Pence.
One thing that occurred to me is that more of the white families that heard nothing might be supporters of the President while the African-American families might tend not to me. This is what we’d expect from the demographics of the President’s political support. It’s possible this colors both group’s reaction to the same lack of calls. So perhaps we’re hearing more from African-American families who heard nothing. That is speculation. I just want to raise it as a possibility. Of course none of the four dead in Niger – three white and one African-American – had heard anything after 10 days. La David Johnson’s wife did get a call from the President, though obviously that call did not go well.
Still, President Trump isn’t just any President. He has a history of friendliness to white supremacists and antagonism with and often hostility to African-Americans. As I noted a couple days ago, it’s a symptom of the poisonousness of Donald Trump that we’re even having this conversation. But here we are. The pattern is conspicuous.