The target for Spicer's original comments was clear: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had suggested the mission wasn't successful. The problem was that, in going after McCain, the White House also found itself alienating none other than Owens. And Owens in an interview with the Miami Herald this weekend urged the White House not to "hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation" — a pretty clear reference to Spicer's comments.
Spicer took a much different tack Monday, expressing condolences to Owens's family and saying the mission couldn't be called a 100 percent success, given the fact that an American was killed. So while that death was the reason the success of the mission couldn't be questioned three weeks ago, it's now the reason it can't be called a complete success.
Just look at how diametrically opposed these statements are:
It's absolutely a success, and I think anyone who would suggest it's not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens. He fought knowing what was at stake in that mission. And anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn't fully appreciate how successful that mission was. ... I think anybody who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and [does a] disservice to the life of Chief Owens.
As I mentioned before, I think you can't ever say that when there's, most importantly loss of life and people injured, that it's 100 percent successful. But I think when you look at what the stated goal of that mission was, it was an information and intelligence-gathering mission and it achieved that — its objectives. ... And so, we're very comfortable with how the mission was executed and, you know, we'll let the Department of Defense go through that review process and then see where that leads us.
Spicer had indeed said prior to his Feb. 9 briefing that the mission couldn't be called a complete success given Owens's death, but then he seemed to completely change his tune when McCain criticized the operation. It's like a switch had been flipped, almost as if the boss (who went on to tweet about this matter) demanded a forceful response — a forceful response that turned out to be too forceful.
Sen. McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy! He's been losing so....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
...long he doesn't know how to win anymore, just look at the mess our country is in - bogged down in conflict all over the place. Our hero..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
..Ryan died on a winning mission ( according to General Mattis), not a "failure." Time for the U.S. to get smart and start winning again!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
Trump himself has toned the the rhetoric somewhat, maintaining in a "Fox and Friends" interview airing Tuesday morning that the mission was successful but also separating himself from it.
"Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here," Trump said. "This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do. And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. ... And according to General Mattis, it was a very successful mission. They got tremendous amounts of information."
But there are also major questions about whether the information was indeed all that substantial. NBC News reported Monday night, in fact, that U.S. officials say it "has so far yielded no significant intelligence."
In the end, this does look like an overreaction to a momentary political feud rather than a long-term strategy for dealing with very serious questions about what happened in Yemen. After White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this weekend that Trump would probably back an investigation into the operation, Spicer noted Monday that the Defense Department will review it as a matter of standard procedure.
Which is probably the response the White House should have given in the first place. Instead, they staked out a hyperbolic stance about the success of the raid and are now walking it back. Meanwhile, their blanket assurances of that level of success risk being called into question by investigations.