White House seeks to explain never released Niger statement
Posted October 18, 2017 6:25 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON (CNN) — It's not clear why it took President Donald Trump 12 days to publicly comment on the deaths of US troops killed in an ambush in Niger, but it wasn't for lack of effort from some White House officials.
White House officials prepared and circulated internally a statement to be issued on the President's behalf the day after the attack. But the statement, obtained Wednesday by Politico and confirmed by CNN, was never officially released.
Instead, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders took to the briefing room that same day and said: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the fallen service members who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the freedoms we hold so dear."
It wasn't until nearly two weeks later that the President, an avid Twitter user, mentioned the deaths when he asked about them during an impromptu news conference Monday in the White House Rose Garden.
Pressed Wednesday on why it took Trump so long to offer a public statement on the soldiers' deaths, Sanders pointed reporters to her remarks October 5, saying she made those remarks "at the direction of the President."
"I speak on his behalf and I did that on behalf of the President and the administration," Sanders said, though her initial statement made no specific mention of the President.
A White House official said Wednesday the White House opted not to issue the written statement from the President, deciding instead it would be more powerful for Sanders to deliver remarks from the White House podium on the matter. The official said it was more important to elevate the message by issuing it from the White House podium.
The draft statement, which notes that "Melania and I are heartbroken at the news that three US service members were killed," was prepared before the military recovered Army Sgt. La David Johnson's body nearly 48 hours after the ambush.
Those chaotic hours, when US officials were uncertain whether Johnson had survived the ambush, could have also contributed to the decision not to release a presidential statement. What isn't clear is why Trump didn't issue a tweet, word or written statement about the death of four US service members until nearly two weeks later.
Trump's 12-day public silence on the matter also coincided with his lack of communication with the service members' families. Commenting for the first time Monday on the attack, Trump said he had written letters to those families over the weekend and they were being sent out that night.
Trump's relative quiet on the matter comes as questions about the ambush have gained steam, with the Defense Department this week launching an internal investigation into how the 12-man team led by Green Berets were ambushed and how Johnson's body was left behind in the initial rescue and recovery.