“President Donald J. Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States. 20 hostages, many in impossible circumstances, have been released in last two years. No money was paid.” Cheif Hostage Negotiator, USA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2019
The quote doesn’t come up in a Google search, and it doesn’t appear to have been uttered on any of Trump’s favorite morning shows Friday. Asked where it came from, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders attributed it to Robert C. O’Brien, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department.
O’Brien is on-record as having hailed Trump’s success in returning hostages. In a March 6 news conference on the return of Danny Burch, a hostage formerly held in Yemen, O’Brien played up Trump’s “unparalleled success” in this area.
“This wouldn’t happen with all of these hostages and detainees without the support of the president,” O’Brien said. “The president has had unparalleled success in bringing Americans home without paying concessions, without prisoner exchanges, but through force of will and the goodwill that he’s generated around the world.”
After O’Brien said that, Trump seemed to allude to an even bigger plaudit O’Brien had given him privately.
“The ambassador said that he’s the greatest hostage negotiator in our history,” Trump said. “And I say, ‘Don’t say it because they’ll never write it. They’ll never write it.’”
Trump’s comment is clunky. O’Brien’s title isn’t technically “ambassador,” and some have surmised that Trump was actually referring to O’Brien as having been called the “greatest negotiator.” But the way Trump says it — suggesting the press would never relay such high praise — suggests he’s referring to himself. Trump often laments how the press doesn’t report the nice things people say about him. Trump also said it immediately after O’Brien has just praised him, suggesting he’s elaborating on what O’Brien said.
But did O’Brien really say what Trump attributed to him? Did he really call Trump the greatest hostage negotiator in U.S. history? Or did he simply refer to the broader concept of “unparalleled success,” which is more about results rather than acumen?
The State Department hasn’t responded to inquiries, but there is plenty of reason to believe Trump has hyperbolized O’Brien’s praise. Trump has a demonstrated history of doing just that.
He once claimed that Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) told him, “You will go down as one of the great presidents in the history of our country.” The idea that a Democrat would tell Trump this strained credulity, and Cummings clarified that Trump had butchered his comment. He told me: “I have said repeatedly that he could be a great president if … if … he takes steps to truly represent all Americans rather than continuing on the divisive and harmful path he is currently on.”
And former senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has also said Trump had misstated his praise. Trump had cited Hatch, then still in office, calling him the “greatest president in the history of our country” — even better than Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Hatch’s office said that was incorrect. “He has not said that President Trump is the greatest president in the history of our country, but that he could be,” a spokesman said.
We’ll let you know if the State Department offers some similar clarity.