NEW YORK: The killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave President Donald Trump an undeniable national security triumph and also a much-needed political victory at the most precarious moment of his presidency.
Imperiled by an impeachment inquiry and facing fierce foreign policy criticism from within his own party, Trump reveled in the win Sunday, at first announcing the raid like so many of his predecessors, with solemnity for the mission in Syria and praise for the brave Americans and allies who carried it out.
As the minutes passed, he reverted to the president who has tried to redefine the office and how Americans view it, using graphic language and awkward ad-libs while dispensing criticism of his political foes, at home and abroad, and turning the triumph into a moment, more than anything, about Donald J. Trump himself.
Despite the Trumpian flourishes, the president’s White House reveal of al-Baghdadi’s death gave him a destined-for-history image to place alongside Barack Obama’s iconic announcement of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It also offered him a reprieve from the escalating impeachment inquiry and a ready-made line for this 2020 reelection campaign.
“The al-Baghdadi raid is a gold star for the Trump presidency. It was a lifeline to him because his poll numbers are tumbling and people think he’s made significant foreign policy mistakes in the Middle East,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “Just when he is massively hemorrhaging, he is able to claim a foreign policy win. Impeachment will swirl around him but this is concrete.”
The timing for Trump was fortuitous. His poll numbers have slipped since the initiation of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into the request Trump made of Ukraine to investigate a political foe, leading to a parade of officials providing damaging testimony on Capitol Hill. Moreover, the raid comes against the backdrop of some of the most pointed criticism from his own party over his decision to pull most US troops out of Syria.
“This allows him to say we can still succeed in Syria in light of all that has happened there in recent weeks because of his policy change,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Haass cautioned that because of the opaque nature of the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi’s death was “not a transformational event” that would forever cripple the militant network. But he underscored that for the nation and for Trump, “it was a good day because it sends the message that no enemy of the United States is safe.”
In a national Sunday morning address that he had teased on Saturday night, Trump described the daring nighttime airborne raid by American special operations forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and said they flew over heavily militarized territory controlled by multiple nations and forces. He adopted the role of narrator, at one point marveling at the clarity of the video taken during the raid.
Presidents are often measured by how they handle such important national moments, the words they use becoming part of the permanent tableau of their time in office. When Trump hewed to his prepared remarks, he was in league with those who came before him.
But when he diverted, when a moment of national resolve and triumph turned into just another riffing question-and-answer session, he risked diminishing what should have been a triumph.
As he so often does, Trump offered a commentary on the images that he just watched, but this time he was not reacting to cable news talking heads, but rather video he viewed in the Situation Room as the raid was carried out, gloatingly narrating gruesome details about the militant leader’s death.
“He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast,” Trump said. “The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.”
And before long, the story was less about the raid and more about him. The targets of his grievances were familiar: Democrats, with whom he did not share information about the mission, as well European nations, many of which have defied his wishes and disagreed with his policies. He also, once more, compared himself to his immediate predecessor and boasted what he had done was grander.
“Osama bin Laden was very big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center,” said Trump, before arguing that al-Baghdadi was a more lethal and important target. “This is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country, a caliphate, and was trying to do it again.”
The contrast with Obama’s 2011 announcement about bin Laden’s death was striking. National celebrations followed the death of a man who had killed nearly 3,000 on American soil. Al-Baghdadi, though extraordinarily dangerous, had not orchestrated an attack like the one bin Laden planned for Sept. 11, 2001, and was not nearly as well known.
And while Obama spoke somberly for nine minutes and took no questions, Trump held forth for 48 minutes, answering question after question. He called the slain militant a “dog” and “a total loser,” said he couldn’t trust Democrats not to leak details of the mission that would endanger American lives and, in one eyebrow-raising moment, complained about not getting enough credit for the success of his many books, including one that he falsely claimed was prescient about the dangers of bin Laden.
Widening the victory lap, administration officials fanned out on the Sunday talk shows and the White House released a photo of Trump watching the raid, again drawing contrasts, perhaps some unintentional, with the bin Laden raid eight years earlier.
In the famous candid photo from the 2011 raid, Obama is sitting off to the side, gazing intently and anxiously at a screen while surrounded by a room full of advisers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In a seemingly posed photo tweeted out Sunday by White House social media director Dan Scavino, Trump sits dead center, staring directly into the camera lens.
“I saw a president that is just desperate for some accolades, just hungry for some sort of success. Instead of doing a clipped serious report on what occurred, he started heading into graphic ‘TrumpLand’ language to offer as much gritty detail as he could to get people to lean forward and listen,” said Brinkley. “The language was not what we are used to hearing from a president. But it was quintessential Trump.”