- President Donald Trump took to the White House podium on Sunday to announce the capture and death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
- In the end, what should have been an announcement of the US’s most significant counterterrorism victory in five years turned into the Trump show.
- He enthusiastically recalled the gory details of al-Baghdadi’s death. He praised Russia and Turkey. He grudgingly credited Kurdish forces in Syria who were instrumental to the operation. He slammed the US’s European allies for not doing enough.
- And he insisted the death of al-Baghdadi was a bigger deal than that of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden eight years ago, an operation overseen by then President Barack Obama.
- Trump’s insistence on claiming credit for al-Baghdadi’s capture and death represents a stark departure from how he felt in 2012. “Stop congratulating Obama for killing Bin Laden,” he tweeted at the time. “The Navy Seals killed Bin Laden.”
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President Donald Trump took to the White House podium on Sunday to announce the capture and death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
He enthusiastically recalled the gory details of al-Baghdadi’s death. He praised Russia and Turkey. He grudgingly credited Kurdish forces in Syria who were instrumental to the operation. He slammed the US’s European allies for not doing enough. And he insisted the death of al-Baghdadi was a bigger deal than that of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden eight years ago, an operation overseen by then President Barack Obama.
He promoted his own role in the al-Baghdadi raid, put himself on a pedestal compared to previous presidents, and in the end, what should have been an announcement of the US’s most significant counterterrorism victory in five years turned into the Trump show.
It started on Saturday night, when Trump wrote on Twitter that “something very big has just happened!” It was, as the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey put it, “as if he were sharing a ‘sweeps week’-like promo for a TV show.”
The New York Times reported that Trump’s tweet was premature because forensic analysts had not yet confirmed that the man who had been killed was al-Baghdadi.
A Defense Department official told The Times that with any other president, the Pentagon would have waited to be absolutely certain of the outcome before announcing victory, but Trump was impatient to get the news out and claim credit for the operation.
The next day, instead of approaching the news conference officially announcing al-Baghdadi’s death with the serious, sobering tone his predecessor following the bin Laden raid, this president gave a decidedly Trumpian conference, rattling off an 8,000-word prepared statement before veering off the rails during a 40-minute question-and-answer session with reporters.
If he’d handled it right, this development could have been a political boon for Trump, who has been battered on every front in recent weeks as he grapples with a brewing congressional impeachment inquiry, continued fallout over his decision to pull troops from Syria, and a series of federal court rulings about his finances and the Russia investigation that could spell trouble down the road.
But his approach has forced the narrative to focus not just on celebrating the victory but also on Trump’s deep-seated impulse to make everything about himself.
The White House released a photo to that effect, one that drew immediate — and unflattering — comparisons to a May 2011 Situation Room photo of Obama and senior White House and military officials during the raid targeting bin Laden.
Trump’s photo looked staged — and it may have been — with the president seated at the center of the photo and surrounded by top military and national security officials.
To his right were national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Vice President Mike Pence, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. To his left were Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, the Pentagon’s deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism.
As the men around him looked to a point beyond the camera, presumably a screen depicting the raid against al-Baghdadi, Trump stared directly into the camera in what appears to have been an effort to showcase his own grandeur and the power of his office. The photo is also zoomed in from the original, in which Trump looked smaller than those surrounding him.
The Obama-era photo, meanwhile, strikes a significantly less formal tone while conveying the gravity of the moment.
Obama is seen seated next to Brig. Gen. Marshall Webb, who was communicating with Navy SEAL Team Six commander Adm. William McRaven, who was overseeing the operation in Afghanistan. Then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are also pictured, with Clinton’s hand over her mouth as she observed the events unfolding.
As the Associated Press reported, the 2011 photo depicts a packed room of advisers and reflects Obama’s “interest in receiving a broad array of opinions.”
Obama is an object in the 2011 photo, while Trump is the subject of the 2019 photo.
Even Trump’s prepared announcement drew criticism.
In addition to providing a macabre and detailed description of al-Baghdadi’s death, Trump raised eyebrows when he thanked US adversaries like Russia and Turkey ahead of US intelligence.
He hat-tipped Syria and Iraq as well, and haltingly admitted that the Syrian Kurds, one of the US’s closest allies in the fight against ISIS, gave “information that turned out to be helpful.”
The Kurds disputed that characterization, saying in a press conference after that they started sharing intelligence with the US about al-Baghdadi five months ago. Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told Foreign Policy he was the only foreigner to know about the target, an account independently confirmed to the outlet by a senior US official.
“This is the biggest one perhaps that we’ve ever captured,” Trump said while answering questions about al-Baghdadi’s death on Sunday. “This is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever. Osama bin Laden was big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This is a man who build a whole, as he would like to call it, a country.”
The president’s comments represented a stark departure from how he felt in 2012.
“Stop congratulating Obama for killing Bin Laden,” he tweeted. “The Navy Seals killed Bin Laden.”