President Trump's speech to the nation on Tuesday night will likely be remembered for a single moment in the months and years to come — the moment he led a standing ovation for the widow of a Navy SEAL who died during a raid in Yemen.
But whether that moment will ultimately be remembered as a good turning point for Trump or a bad one is very much an open question.
The fact is that, while the moment was touching and earned plaudits from even liberal commentators, it belies a troubling set of circumstances for the Trump administration. There remain more questions than answers about what happened in Yemen, and the White House has backed itself into somewhat of a corner by casting the mission as an unmitigated success — a characterization it has walked back, but only somewhat.
There is, quite simply, a lot to play out here, and not all of it promises to be good for Trump. And now Trump has cast a spotlight on all of it.
As I wrote Tuesday, the White House's posture that the success of the mission couldn't be challenged and that questioning it did a disservice to Ryan Owens's life is already causing it problems. Trump had even said that such questions emboldened the enemy. But then Owens's father spoke out this weekend, demanding answers and suggesting that the White House was hiding "behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation."
Concurrently, NBC News reported over the weekend that the raid has "has so far yielded no significant intelligence," citing unnamed intelligence officials. This is diametrically opposed to the White House's repeated assurances that the mission produced a bevy of valuable information. Trump even said as much Tuesday night.
"I just spoke to [Defense Secretary] General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, 'Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies,'" Trump said, before delivering arguably his most memorable line — as tears rolled down Carryn Owens's face: "Ryan's legacy is etched into eternity."
The U.S. Central Command last month released a video seized in the raid that purportedly held valuable information — only to later acknowledge that the video was already available online and had not been thoroughly analyzed before its release. A press conference to play up the value of the information was reportedly canceled.
And then, apart from the information piece, there are the very real questions about how the mission was executed and whether it was thoroughly analyzed before being approved. Trump did authorize the mission, and an American did die.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that the Defense Department would conduct its normal investigations into the raid in Yemen — as it would with any mission that results in a death — but so far the White House has resisted calls for a more thorough, separate investigation.
And there are signs that the Trump administration doesn't want to take complete ownership of the results. Notably, in an interview airing Tuesday morning on Fox News, Trump downplayed his role in the mission, which was first discussed and planned during the Obama administration. Trump, who again ultimately approved the raid — in his first week as president — noted that the mission "was started before I got here" and even seemed to be passing the buck to the generals, as The Post's Abby Phillip reported.
"This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do,” Trump said. “ And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected.”
Trump added: “And they lost Ryan."
By featuring Owens's widow at the speech Tuesday night, the Trump White House made a decision to continue to highlight this situation. And in the moment, it reflected very well upon the president, projecting qualities that many Americans have felt were lacking in him — especially that amorphous thing we like to call "being presidential." And perhaps the Trump team is completely confident about what we'll learn in the weeks and months ahead about the Yemen raid.
But by raising it to such prominence in his speech Tuesday night, Trump effectively doubled down — in a big way — on his constant assurances that this raid won't come back to make him and his administration look bad. If it does, that emotional moment Tuesday night would certainly be remembered in a far different way.