President Donald Trump stepped up to a White House podium on Sunday morning to announce the US military conducted an operation that resulted ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death in what was a huge moment for the country and Trump’s legacy.
But instead of just declaring the so-called caliph dead, Trump chose to answer questions for roughly 40 minutes in what turned into a wild and jaw-dropping press conference.
During his question-and-answer session, Trump divulged multiple sensitive details about the raid in Syria that could possibly give US enemies intelligence advantages; admitted to keeping Congress in the dark about the operation; openly mocked the terrorist leader; praised his controversial travel ban; and insinuated the September 11 attacks might not have happened had Washington heeded his advice.
Overall, Trump squandered one of the best moments of his presidency by speaking cavalierly in his free-wheeling and self-aggrandizing manner.
“Talking about how many aircraft, where the aircraft are flying in, how they’re breaching a building, other technology they can bring to bear, knowledge about the tunnels and the mapping of those tunnels, these are operational details which are only about preening,” Michael Leiter, who led the US National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011, told me.
Which means that Trump turned a prideful, historic moment into one that many may remember more for his carelessness and bravado.
What follows is a quick guide to Trump’s remarkable and controversial comments.
Trump divulged sensitive information about the Baghdadi raid
Trump spent a lot of time after his prepared remarks offering more information than his administration would’ve surely preferred. Here are just a few examples:
- “Two or three efforts” to get Baghdadi were scrapped over a few weeks because of the terrorist leader’s unpredictable movements.
- Before the raid, the US knew that Baghdad’s compound had tunnels through which he might try to escape.
- US troops blew a hole through a door in order to go inside the compound.
- The US had more DNA than it needed to verify that the one of the men killed in the raid was Baghdadi.
- The US killed scores of people in Baghdadi’s circle and captured others.
- The US used eight helicopters and other ships and planes to help with the strike.
No matter how many ways you cut it, that’s a lot of information. The US usually offers some detail to help the public understand how such a daring operation went down, but not so much that it gives Americans — and potential adversaries — so much inside information about equipment, intelligence, planning, or tactics.
“I think the president disclosed more than what was necessary, and it could provide an advantage to our adversary,” Leiter told me.
Part of the reason is that the ISIS members will have more data on how the US conducts raids of this nature, learn that American intelligence has nitty-gritty intelligence on the layout of terrorist compounds, and assume that US intelligence officials may learn new information from captured people and documents. Any warning to ISIS members that the US has this newfound font of knowledge could lead them to change their ways, which makes the intelligence less useful over time.
In other words, it will now be somewhat harder for the US to fight off ISIS thanks to the president’s ill-advised comments.
Trump said Baghdadi was “screaming, crying, and whimpering” as he tried to escape
Announcing the death of a brutal, vicious terrorist is, tonally, a complicated moment. On the one hand it’s prideful, as the US aptly displays its might and the president revels in a positive outcome after making a tough decision. But it’s also a somewhat somber occasion, because no matter how horrible the target, it is still the US using force to kill someone.
Which is why the president in moments like this typically takes the high road to preserve America’s and his dignity. That’s not what happened here, though.
“He was screaming, crying, and whimpering,” Trump said of Baghdadi. “And he was scared out of his mind.” It’s a line he repeated often, adding that the terrorist leader “died like a dog. He died like a coward.”
Trump said he used such language so that Baghdadi’s followers would know about the less-than-brave way he died, perhaps in an effort to delegitimize his leadership and stop others from joining the group.
“I think it’s something that should be brought out so that his followers and all of these young kids that want to leave various countries, including the United States, they should see how he died,” the president said. “He didn’t die a hero. He died a coward.”
For some that’s all well and good, as few would say Baghdadi deserves mercy. But others, like Leiter, think the president should’ve been thoughtful with his commentary.
“Highlighting and repeating that language is not especially dignified for the United States. We should always take a higher moral ground, and talking about an individual’s death is not particularly productive,” he said. “What the president should’ve spent more time on was highlighting ISIS’s atrocities, like the killing of the Jordanian pilot. That’s appropriate: It shows that ISIS wasn’t at war with the West, it was at war with all peoples who are civilized, including Muslims who don’t adhere to their extremely strict view of Sunni Islam.”
No tears will be shed for Baghdad in the United States and many other places around the world, including in the Middle East. But taking a victory lap and constantly hurling insults at the leader made the important occasion less honorable than it could’ve been.
Trump didn’t tell Congress about the Baghdadi raid for fear it might leak
When the US takes a major action on the world stage, it’s customary for the president to inform all members of Congress, regardless of party or the relationship between the two branches of government. Trump, though, admitted that he didn’t do so ahead of the Baghdadi raid because — get this — he was afraid of leaks.
“We were going to notify them last night but we decided not to do that because Washington leaks like I’ve never seen before,” Trump said. “There’s no country in the world that leaks like we do. And Washington is a leaking machine. And I told my people we will not notify them until the — our great people are out. Not just in, but out. I don’t want to have them greeted with firepower like you wouldn’t believe.”
There’s a good case to be made that this was a prudent decision. After all, this was a highly sensitive military operation that could’ve gone horribly wrong if any word of it got out. It helps explain why Newsweek, which first learned of the raid, didn’t report the story until it was safe to do so.
But what Trump is insinuating is that if he told Congressional leaders — especially Democrats — about the operation, word would’ve gotten out and put US troops in danger. In effect, Trump doesn’t trust Democrats enough to safeguard vital national security secrets. It’s a shocking admission, and it goes to show just how little faith the White House has in Congress.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) noted her displeasure after Trump’s comments. “The House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top Congressional Leadership were notified of in advance, and on the Administration’s overall strategy in the region,” she said. “Our military and allies deserve strong, smart and strategic leadership from Washington.”
It should be noted that the speaker’s comments are a misleading. The US had to notify Russia of the raid beforehand to ensure troops could safely fly over territory Moscow controls. That’s nowhere near the same as having the White House brief the Kremlin on the operation itself, which the US didn’t do, according to Trump.
But she has a point: it’s odd that she and others didn’t get a heads up about an important military maneuver done in the name of the American people. If relations between Democratic legislators and the executive branch weren’t bad already, they’re only going to get worse.
Trump boasted about his travel ban as a way to protect against ISIS
Trump says the US is mostly safe from ISIS because its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq is gone and Baghdadi is no more. But he also claims that ISIS fighters will have a hard time harming Americans because of his controversial travel ban imposed during his first year in office.
“We’re 8,000 miles away. Now, maybe they can get here, but we’ve done very well with Homeland Security and the ban, which, by the way, is approved by the United States Supreme Court,” the president said. “We have a very effective ban, and it’s very hard for people to come to our country.”
It’s worth remembering that Trump initially instituted a ban on six Muslim-majority countries to keep terrorists out, but that justification was always flimsy. No person from those nations committed a deadly terrorist attack inside US borders. The Trump administration has yet to offer any compelling reason to believe that citizens of those countries pose any kind of special terrorist threat going forward. What’s more, the odds of being killed by an immigrant terrorist of any kind, let alone a Muslim immigrant, are one in 3.6 million.
So for Trump to brag about the ban as a way to keep America safe from ISIS really doesn’t make any sense. If anything, ISIS-inspired terrorism from inside the US is the much bigger threat — and the president didn’t offer up one word about his plan to deal with that going forward.
Trump insinuated 9/11 might not have happened had the US listened to his advice
Toward the end of Trump’s press conference, the president made the case that he knew about the danger former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden posed to America before anyone else.
The entire riff, per the White House’s own transcript, is really worth reading nearly in full:
You know, if you read my book — there was a book just before the World Trade Center came down. And I don’t get any credit for this, but that’s okay. I never do. But here we are. I wrote a book — a, really, very successful book. And in that book, about a year before the World Trade Center was blown up, I said, “There is somebody named Osama bin Laden. You better kill him or take him out.” Something to that effect. ”He’s big trouble.”
Nobody ever heard of. I mean, al-Baghdadi everybody hears because he’s built this monster for a long time. But nobody ever heard of Osama bin Laden until, really, the World Trade Center. But about a year — you’ll have to check — a year, year and a half before the World Trade Center came down, the book came out. I was talking about Osama bin Laden. I said, “You have to kill him. You have to take him out.” Nobody listened to me.
And to this day, I get people coming up to me, and they said, “You know what one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen about you? Is that you predicted that Osama bin Laden had to be killed before he knocked down the World Trade Center.” It’s true. Now, most of the press doesn’t want to write that, but you know — but it is true. If you go back, look at my book. I think it was “The America We Deserve.” I made a prediction, and I — let’s put it this way: If they would have listened to me, a lot of things would have been different.
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here, but two thoughts come immediately to mind.
First, Trump never actually said the US should kill bin Laden. In The America We Deserve, Trump does mention bin Laden, but doesn’t say the US or anyone should take the terror leader out. At most, Trump lumps bin Laden in with the many national security threats facing the US at the time.
What’s more, Trump implies the 9/11 attacks wouldn’t have happened had the US government listened to his take-out-bin-Laden advice. Of course, Trump never offered that warning in the first place, and it’s unclear that the 9/11 attacks wouldn’t have been carried out down the line, even without bin Laden’s leadership.
Second, people very much knew who bin Laden was well before 2000. He was a top target after al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 224 people. The CIA even had a section dedicated just to bin Laden starting in the mid-1990s.
So, no, Trump is no counterterrorism savant. But he is a president that authorized a successful mission to take out one of the world’s most notorious terrorists, and no one can ever deny that.