After President Trump’s first address to Congress last night, journalists and pundits were effusive in their praise of one particular moment, when Trump talked about Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL killed in the disastrous raid of an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) compound in Yemen that Trump ordered in late January.
“It was without a doubt one of the most kind of emotional moments we have seen in a political speech like this in quite some time,” said Anderson Cooper. “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period,” said Van Jones. The Washington Times called it “the most riveting piece of political theater” and claimed that “the president’s critics and supporters alike admired it.”
Sorry — no. Was that moment, with Owens’s widow in attendance, moving and sad? Absolutely. It was also one of the most cynical things Donald Trump has done as president.
The problem isn’t that Trump honored Carryn Owens at a moment of terrible grief, or that he spoke movingly of her husband’s death. All that was altogether appropriate. Rather, the problem is that he did this after trying to evade any responsibility for what happened, and after the White House cast any criticism of his handling of it as an insult to Ryan’s legacy. In this sense, the entire story raises serious doubts about Trump’s decision-making on matters of national security, and it may be a grim preview of what’s to come.
Let’s review the facts. The Yemen raid on Jan. 29 was the first military action of Trump’s presidency. The idea for raiding this compound, partly in pursuit of the leader of AQAP leader (who wasn’t there) was presented to Trump over dinner one night, and according to NBC News, military representatives “told Trump that they doubted that the Obama administration would have been bold enough to try it,” which was apparently good enough to get him to sign off.
Then almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The militants knew they were coming, possibly tipped off by the increased sound of drones in the area. The team encountered stronger resistance than it expected. A couple of dozen civilians were killed (we don’t know exactly how many, but it could be as many as 30), including children, among them an 8-year-old American girl. Owens was killed. A $75 million Osprey aircraft was damaged in a “hard landing” and had to be destroyed lest it fall into AQAP’s hands.
We all know that if it had been Hillary Clinton who ordered the Yemen raid, there would already be multiple congressional investigations underway and subpoenas would be falling like rain. That’s one thing the White House doesn’t have to worry about. But they decided that the way to handle questions about the botched raid was to use Ryan Owens as a shield. The raid was a terrific success, said spokesman Sean Spicer, and “anyone that would suggest it’s not a success does a disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.”
But the questions, and the criticisms, kept coming, most pointedly from Owens’ father, himself a veteran. “Don’t hide behind my son’s death,” Bill Owens told the Miami Herald, after refusing to meet with President Trump at Dover Air Force Base.
That brings us to the day of Trump’s speech to Congress. With Carryn Owens invited to the speech and the tribute to her husband being written, the President went on “Fox and Friends” that morning and passed the buck for the raid, blaming it on the Obama administration and the military. “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” he said. “They came to see me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
Once again, imagine if Hillary Clinton were president, had ordered an operation that went terribly wrong, and then tried to blame it on the military. Republicans would have absolutely lost their minds with rage, and they would have been right. When you’re president, you don’t get to send American servicemembers into harm’s way in an operation you obviously didn’t understand, and then when it all goes wrong and one of those servicemembers is killed, claim that it was somebody else’s fault.
Then that very night, Trump went before the country, looked Owens’ widow in the face, and presented a tribute to her husband’s undeniable service and courage. As the applause went on and Carryn Owens stood weeping, Trump offered what in the tiny, narcissistic world he exists in is the highest form of praise: “And 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 length of the ovation.
What exactly is that supposed to mean? Owens set the “Longest Applause for Dead Servicemember In Joint Speech to Congress” record? What kind of person could possibly think that would matter to anyone? Oh, right — Donald Trump would.
There are legitimate, outstanding questions about whether Trump’s inexperience, his ignorance, and his desire to seem “tough” — in particular, tougher than Barack Obama — led to Ryan Owens’ death. A president not as spectacularly unprepared and clueless as Trump might have asked a different set of questions, might not have been so easily manipulated — and certainly would have shown some desire to learn from the tragedy.
But Trump seems determined not to learn a thing. All we’ve heard from him and his aides in the month since the disastrous raid was what a great success it was (despite the fact that at least some reports say that the raid produced little if any useful intelligence). So what happens next time, and the time after that?
When a president makes the decision to send American troops into potentially deadly situations, he has to weigh the risks involved against the potential benefits, which requires knowledge, foresight, and some analytical capability, none of which Trump demonstrates possessing in the slightest. He also needs to consider how he’ll deal with failure if it occurs.
Nearly every recent president, Democrat and Republican, has faced that moment of going before the public and saying, “I ordered this operation, and it failed. It’s on me.” But Trump, as we well know, is incapable of taking responsibility. He had his first chance, and his answer was to blame it on the military, then use the sacrifice of a dead SEAL and his widow for his own benefit.
So maybe it’s not the time to gush about what good theater it all was.