He insulted Democratic leaders by claiming they would have leaked word of the raid in advance, even though he is the one with a history of leaking classified information. Ironically, he did it again Sunday by divulging operational details of the raid that horrified national security professionals.
A president who has never heard a shot fired in anger reveled in Baghdadi’s last moments, even claiming “he died like a coward … whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.” Trump could not possibly have heard “whimpering and crying” on the overhead imagery because there was no audio, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointedly refused to confirm those details. (An earlier version of this column included a sentence questioning whether Trump was right to call Baghdadi a coward. The line was removed because it unintentionally conveyed the impression that I considered Baghdadi courageous. As I wrote on Sunday, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was, as President Trump said, ‘a sick and depraved man,’ so his removal from this earth is good news.”)
Most likely Trump made up the vivid details about Baghdadi’s last moments, just as he made up his claim that he alone called for action against Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11. “And I’m saying to people, take out Osama bin Laden, that nobody ever heard of,” Trump recounted. In reality, a ghostwritten book bearing Trump’s name, which came out in 2000, included a brief mention of bin Laden — already a world-famous terrorist who was being hunted by the U.S. government — but did not suggest killing him.
Trump even had the gall to brag that the death of Baghdadi was a bigger coup (“the biggest there is”) than the death of bin Laden, who staged the most deadly foreign attack on our soil in U.S. history.
But to my mind, the most alarming parts of Trump’s news conference came when he offered a road map for the future struggle against the Islamic State. The president just pulled most U.S. troops out of northern Syria, thereby terminating a successful alliance with the Kurds that had made the destruction of the terrorist group’s caliphate — and even Baghdadi’s death — possible. The New York Times reported that Trump’s pullout disrupted planning for this raid, which was based largely on intelligence provided by the Kurds, and that, according to U.S. intelligence and military officers, the Sunday raid “occurred largely in spite of, and not because of, Mr. Trump’s actions.”
So how does Trump plan to prevent an Islamic State resurgence, given that the U.S. alliance with the Kurds is history? He said U.S. troops would remain to “secure the oil” and even suggested he would bring in ExxonMobil to exploit Syria’s tiny oil fields. He also said that he would rely on other countries to fight the Islamic State: “Russia is right there. Turkey is right there. Syria is there. They’re all right there. Excuse me. Iran is right there. Iraq is right there. They all hate ISIS. So, we don’t — you know, in theory, they should do something.”
In the real world (as opposed to Trump’s dreamland), no U.S. oil company would come in to pump Syrian oil without the permission of whichever government controls eastern Syria or without long-term guarantees of security that Trump is in no position to provide. Stealing Syrian oil would be pointless, criminal and a propaganda windfall for our enemies.
Also, in the real world, no other state has the will and capability to fight the Islamic State. We know that because the group was on a rampage until the United States teamed up with the Kurds. Turkey has looked the other way as Islamist militants infiltrated Syria from its soil (Baghdadi was living near the Turkish border). Russia has focused on fighting other rebel groups — not the Islamic State, which had established a modus vivendi with Russia’s ally, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Iran is part of the problem, not the solution, because it promotes Shiite sectarianism and triggers a Sunni backlash. Indeed, the expansion of Iranian power into eastern Syria following the U.S. pullback is a gift to Sunni extremists.
Trump showed he was completely out of touch with these essential facts. Instead, he parroted the propaganda of dictators, saying, for example, that “Turkey has lost thousands and thousands of people from that safe zone.” In reality, according to my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Steven A. Cook, there have been few Kurdish attacks on Turkey from northern Syria, and those were most likely in response to Turkish military operations. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan no doubt told Trump otherwise, and Trump believed him. Trump also congratulated Russia repeatedly (“Russia treated us great”) even though Russian officials say they had nothing to do with the raid — and even cast doubts on U.S. claims to have killed Baghdadi.
Trump’s news conference should have been his shining hour. Instead, it showed yet again why he is utterly unfit to be commander in chief.