As it turns out, too triumphant.
The Defense Department announced Monday that 109 U.S. soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries during those attacks. That stands in contrast with Trump’s proclamation the morning after that there were no casualties or injuries.
“I’m pleased to inform you: The American people should be extremely grateful and happy no Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime,” Trump said at the top of his remarks. “We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.”
Trump wasn’t the only one to play up the supposed lack of any measurable personal toll. At a campaign event Jan. 14, Vice President Pence also played up the claim.
“We suffered no casualties, and Iran is standing down,” Pence said. “That’s what leadership looks like, Wisconsin.”
Since then, the reports have put officials in the familiar but unenviable position of trying to defend Trump’s comments and square them with reality. The president did little to help them, though, when he responded early on that he didn’t consider traumatic brain injuries to be that serious.
“I heard that they had headaches, and a couple of other things,” Trump said Jan. 22, after reports that 11 soldiers had been hurt. He added: “I don’t consider them very serious injuries, relative to other injuries that I’ve seen. I’ve seen what Iran has done with their roadside bombs to our troops. I’ve seen people with no legs and with no arms.”
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was asked Jan. 23 about those comments from Trump and didn’t have much to offer.
“This is mostly outpatient stuff,” Esper said. When asked whether those cases were serious enough to be considered traumatic brain injury, he said, “I don’t know. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not the ones evaluating them.”
The next day, though, Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman confirmed that there were 34 cases of traumatic brain injury, which he described as concussion and concussion-like. He said that eight of the 34 at that point were bad enough to result in the soldiers being flown home. Hoffman said that “their conditions didn’t improve. Some got worse, and some had severe enough symptoms that they were transported on for further treatment.”
On Jan. 30, Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to square all of that with Trump’s comments.
Milley emphasized that the injuries were classified as minor traumatic brain injuries and said most of those affected had returned to duty. He said that the initial no-casualty estimates were focused on “life and limb.”
“So when we say ‘reported casualties,' we’re really talking about killed in action and — and serious injuries like loss of limbs,” Milley said.
Esper argued that Trump wasn’t actually wrong.
“I think the reporting was accurate,” Esper said. “At the time, as reported, there were no casualties, as the chairman just defined it.”
Esper added: “So I think we did our best to report no casualties, and I still believe that there were — that morning, there were no casualties reported.”
It’s true that information comes in slowly — especially information about traumatic brain injuries, symptoms of which can take days to manifest. But Trump didn’t just say that there were no injuries reported at that time; he said there were no injuries, period. When you go out there just hours after the retaliatory strikes, you want to be judicious and careful about what you can confirm, because you may not know everything.
Trump then compounded things by arguing that traumatic brain injuries weren’t that bad, which prompted a rebuke from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It called for “an apology from the president to our service men and women for his misguided remarks.”
“TBI is a serious injury, and one that cannot be taken lightly,” the VFW’s national commander, William “Doc” Schmitz, said of Trump’s casual description of “headaches” suffered by some troops. “TBI is known to cause depression, memory loss, severe headaches, dizziness and fatigue — all injuries that come with both short- and long-term effects.”
Trump is someone who speaks loosely — almost constantly. That goes double when he’s talking about his own perceived victories. The lure of absolutist and hyperbolic rhetoric is just too tempting.
We’ve seen it before when it came to Trump’s claims about Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s final moments, and it’s happened again.