President Donald Trump has sought political profit from targeted killing. His reelection campaign has run hundreds of social media ads praising the attack on Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. In October, after he announced the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the campaign quickly produced a video that bragged about “obliterating ISIS.”
Why has he failed to get the “rally effect” that boosted previous presidents after foreign crises? For all his complaints about Democrats and the news media, the blame is in Trump's own hands. Years of tweets and public statements have completely undercut his message.
President Barack Obama saw his approval rating jump six points after a successful raid against 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden. The effect did not last long, however, in part because critics such as Trump urged Americans to deny credit to their president.
In December 2011, Trump told CNN's Wolf Blitzer: “I keep hearing about, oh, bin Laden, the military did an incredible job and they called and they said, we have him. And he said, go get him. What’s he going to say, don’t get him? And he gets all this credit? It’s a lot of crap.”
In October 2012, Trump was still at it: “Stop congratulating Obama for killing Bin Laden. The Navy Seals killed Bin Laden.”
Trump's foreign relations ignorance
And bin Laden was a far more familiar figure than Trump’s recent targets. Before last autumn, few Americans knew who Soleimani and al-Baghdadi were, and Trump showed little interest in rallying the public against them.
In a 2015 interview with Hugh Hewitt, Trump acknowledged his own ignorance. Hewitt mentioned their names, asking: “Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?’ He responded: “No, you know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone.”
Hewitt’s questioning annoyed Trump, who then tweeted: “Very low ratings radio host Hugh Hewitt asked me about Suleiman, Abu Bake al-Baghdad, Hassan Nasrallah and more — typical 'gotcha' questions.”
The following year, Bret Baier of Fox News asked: “So if we took out al-Baghdadi, would you say that decapitation would kill ISIS or another leader would just pop up?” This time, Trump did not object to the question but belittled the value of killing evil leaders. “No. No,” he said “another leader would pop up. I think it's been proven.”
Trump seldom if ever mentioned al-Baghdadi or Soleimani on the campaign trail, and the pattern continued into his presidency.
In a 2017 tweet, he falsely claimed that The New York Times had published information that foiled al-Baghdadi’s capture. Trump briefly uttered al-Baghdadi’s name during his 2018 State of the Union address, but as a way to fault previous administrations. “In the past, we have foolishly released hundreds of dangerous terrorists, only to meet them again on the battlefield — including the ISIS leader, al-Baghdadi,” he said.
The claim was misleading. After al-Baghdadi was in American custody in 2004, the United States handed him over to Iraqi authorities.
Lies about Obama return to haunt
That was about it. Between January 2017 and October 2019, Trump talked and tweeted far more about Hillary Clinton than about the men whose deaths he would order. When he did discuss the killings, he stepped on his own story.
With al-Baghdadi, he staged a meandering news conference full of tangents and dubious claims, such as his insistence that al-Baghdadi wept before he died. With Soleimani, he bungled any chance for national unity by making a harsh, inaccurate and unnecessary attack on Obama’s Iran policy.
In a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, a plurality of respondents said Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani to distract attention from his impeachment. Why would they believe such a ghastly thing? For one thing, Trump had encouraged them to think that way.
In 2011, he tweeted: “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.” In a YouTube video, he said: "Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate. … So I believe that he will attack Iran sometime prior to the election, because he thinks that's the only way he can get elected.”
Trump has told thousands of lies and openly disparaged the intelligence community. It is no surprise that so many people now doubt him when he says that the targeted killing thwarted an imminent threat. It’s as if he spent the past decade making sure that Americans would distrust him at this very moment.
Here is the worst part: Future presidents will need the public to believe them in times of peril, and Trump’s record will make their job much harder.
John J. Pitney Jr., a former Republican who worked on Capitol Hill and at the Republican National Committee, is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of a forthcoming book, "Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump." Follow him on Twitter: @jpitney
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump trashed Obama achievements and now can't get credit for his own