President Barack Obama was wrapping up a solemn address announcing the death of Osama bin Laden in a Special Forces operation in 2011 when he made a call to the nation’s better angels: The United States would overcome terrorists, he said, by holding true to its ideals as “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
On Sunday, President Trump chose a different note in capping his own announcement of the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a similar raid.
Baghdadi “died like a dog,” Trump declared, employing one of his favorite insults with his customary bravado. “He died like a coward.”
The deaths of the al-Qaeda mastermind in Pakistan and the Islamic State chief in northwestern Syria each represented an important strategic and psychological victory for the United States in the fight against terrorism and extremism, proof that the world’s most powerful nation was willing and able, through the dedication and bravery of the intelligence community and military, to hunt down and eliminate the enemy — even if it took years.
For both Obama and Trump, the moments represented a measure of vindication — evidence that each had demonstrated the resolve as commander in chief to finish the job in the face of considerable risk and criticism from the opposing political party.
But if Obama’s nine-minute speech in the White House’s Cross Hall was notable for his measured tones and appeals to the enduring strength of America’s values, Trump’s 50-minute performance in the Diplomatic Reception Room was marked by the overt showmanship, blunt language and airing of personal gripes that have defined an approach he once dubbed “modern-day presidential.”
After an 8 1 /2-minute prepared statement, Trump fielded questions from reporters for 40 more minutes, narrating his own ticktock of how the raid unfolded, delving into a remarkable level of operational detail and degrading Baghdadi as a “crying, whimpering” figure who allowed his children to perish with him.
It was “as though you were watching a movie,” Trump marveled, referring to watching a video feed of the raid in the Situation Room with aides including Vice President Pence, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark A. Milley.
Along the way, Trump alluded to his feuds with the intelligence community and the media, praised a conservative television network for its coverage, boasted inaccurately that he had warned of the threats bin Laden posed before others and dismissed the need to brief Congress ahead of time on his plans because “Washington is a leaking machine.” He then dispatched an unlikely surrogate — Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who had criticized Trump’s decision this month to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria — to the White House briefing room to praise his leadership.
“It was on brand in the sense that Trump allowed his inner showman to make this a spectacle rather than a solemn moment of acknowledgment and a reflection — the way President Obama did,” said Ned Price, a CIA officer at the time of bin Laden’s death who later served as a spokesman for the National Security Council under Obama.
From a cryptic tweet to a formally posed photo with aides in the Situation Room, Trump’s rollout of the news contrasted sharply with the Obama White House’s approach more than eight years earlier.
On May 1, 2011, the day that the Navy’s highly decorated SEAL Team 6 shot bin Laden dead in a nighttime raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, then secretly disposed of his body, Obama and his top advisers watched a grainy live video feed in the Situation Room. As news of the operation began to leak out, Obama aides alerted reporters that he would be making an announcement that night.
Just after 11:30 p.m., Obama delivered his televised remarks from the Cross Hall entrance to the East Room, as a small group of reporters and aides, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, looked on.
Obama spoke of the anguish of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, emphasized the nation’s resolve in recovering, and praised the skill of the intelligence experts who tracked bin Laden down and the courage of the Special Forces who killed him. He also took a measure of credit.
“I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice,” said a president who was routinely assailed by Republicans as weak and feckless on foreign affairs.
He took no questions from reporters.
By contrast, the Trump show on Baghdadi started with a tweet. “Something very big has just happened!” the president posted on social media Saturday evening, and the White House media office quickly announced that Trump would make a “major announcement” — 11 hours later at 9 a.m. Sunday.
Critics speculated that the president was eager to upstage the Sunday morning political talk shows in a bid to drown out coverage of the House Democrats’ impeachment effort against him. In his remarks, Trump suggested his early tweet was intended to give plenty of advance notice to journalists so they “wouldn’t be out playing golf or tennis.”
Trump had played golf with Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and two Republican senators at his private Trump National club in Sterling, Va., on Saturday afternoon. White House officials declined to comment on the timing.
Like Obama, Trump outlined the deadly threat of Baghdadi’s organization, praised U.S. intelligence and the military and spoke of the memories of Americans killed by the Islamic State, including journalist James Foley and aid worker Kayla Mueller.
Yet as he fielded questions from reporters, Trump offered numerous details about the raid, including that the Special Forces collected a trove of materials about the Islamic State from the hideout and took some of Baghdadi’s body parts with them.
“It bothered me a little bit some of what the president did in providing details,” Michael Morell, who served as acting CIA director in the Obama administration, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Because that’s what inspires some extremists.”
Dana Shell Smith, former U.S. ambassador to Qatar and a career diplomat, faulted Trump for providing a “gruesome, vivid and probably exaggerated description of dogs chasing down Baghdadi” that “will endanger our personnel in the region” by inspiring other extremists.
Robert Spalding, a former Air Force general who served on Trump’s National Security Council until early 2018, defended the president.
“There’s always a risk in saying too much,” Spalding said. “But the thing I liked was, there were no pictures, there was no specification of types of aircraft used. Everything I saw in terms of what was released was quite vague.”
Trump couldn’t help but betray his anger at the House’s impeachment probe over his conduct on a phone call with Ukraine’s leader in the summer. Though he praised the intelligence officials involved in the Baghdadi raid, Trump noted that “I’ve dealt with some people that aren’t very intelligent, having to do with intel,” an apparent reference to those who sounded alarms about the Ukraine call.
He also falsely boasted that he had warned about the need to capture or kill bin Laden in a book he wrote a year before the 9/11 attacks when political leaders were ignoring the threat. In fact, Trump’s book contained no such warning, and President Bill Clinton had authorized CIA operations against the al-Qaeda leader in 1998.