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President Donald Trump’s announcement on Sunday that the Islamic State mastermind Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “died like a dog” in an overnight U.S. military operation proved that even the most consequential moments of his presidency can be swept up in his unpolished governing style.
From the moment Trump lit up his Twitter feed Saturday night to warn that “Something very big has just happened!,” the unveiling of Baghdadi’s death bore the hallmarks of his presidency. The suspenseful tweet ensured that all eyes were on Trump when he outlined the major national security accomplishment in grisly detail — repeatedly invoking the same phrases he’s used to humiliate political opponents at campaign rallies to recount the final moments of the world’s most notorious terrorist.
“He died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming and crying,” Trump said from the White House Diplomatic Room on Sunday, adding that “Baghdadi and the losers who worked for him … were very frightened puppies.”
The success of the special operations mission in Syria offered a brief moment of reprieve for Trump during an otherwise dark period of presidency, with a fast-moving impeachment inquiry threatening his reelection chances and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle warning of the danger of his decision to abandon Kurdish forces in Syria. At the same time, overseeing the execution of the most wanted man in the world could bolster Trump’s claim that he has things under control in the Middle East.
During a 40-minute news conference following his remarks on Sunday, the president heaped praise on a reporter from the Trump-friendly outlet One America News who asked whether his effort to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria was a “red herring” used to lure Baghdadi out of hiding.
“It’s a great question, and you’re doing a great job, by the way,” he said. “Your network is fantastic.”
Throughout the rest of the news conference, Trump eagerly divulged operational details that would normally be reserved for expert officials to share at their discretion. The move immediately drew criticism from national security analysts who said they were alarmed by the volume of information he shared regarding the location and specifics of the nighttime raid.
Over the course of his remarks, Trump revealed that Baghdadi had been “under surveillance for a couple of weeks”; the number of helicopters involved in the mission and their time of liftoff; how special forces teams managed to penetrate the compound where Baghdadi was found; how lab technicians administered a “genius” DNA test after he killed himself by detonating a suicide vest; and which “element of the attack [U.S. forces] were most afraid of.”
Dismissing concerns that Trump disclosed a potentially dangerous amount of information about the operation, one administration official said the president “was totally within his bounds as commander in chief.” The official added that most of the details came in response to reporters once he had concluded his initial announcement — noting that Trump didn’t intend to field questions after addressing the public, “but he got caught up in the moment like usual.”
Samantha Vinograd, a former Obama administration national security official, told CNN shortly after the president’s press conference ended on Sunday: “This is obviously a major accomplishment, but from a counterrorism perspective, the president’s engagement with the media on this is pretty surprising to me.”
“It’s really unprecedented when you think about how much detail he actually went into,” Vinograd added.
Trump’s remarks might have lacked the solemnity of President Barack Obama’s announcement when U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, or the passion of President George W. Bush’s bullhorn speech from Ground Zero in 2001, but it was true Trump from start to finish. At one point, he even compared monitoring the operation live from the situation room to “watching a movie.”
“We watched it so clearly. The technology there alone is really great,” he said.
Officials involved with Trump’s reelection were quick to hit back at those questioning the appropriateness of the president’s language for focusing more on his style than on the substance of his announcement — something Trump and his supporters often gripe about.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Matt Wolking, head of the Trump campaign’s rapid response operation, wrote on Twitter, responding to a CNN correspondent who said the president echoed “the crudeness you would often expect to hear from ISIS.”
To avoid a loss of interest in the operation — which Trump is likely to invoke in the coming days as he continues to defend his partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Syrian border — White House officials and Trump allies borrowed another page from Trump’s playbook: Within hours of the president’s announcement, they were in a war with the news media. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham blasted The Washington Post for calling Baghdadi an “austere religious scholar” in a since-revised headline, while members of his 2020 campaign accused the media of purposefully trying to downplay the possible political impacts of Baghdadi’s death.
“It took 10 minutes for the news media to pivot to reassuring each other that it won’t boost Trump,” said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director.
If past is precedent, however, there is little evidence to suggest that Trump will see a sustained boost to his approval rating because Baghdadi was killed on his watch. A daily tracking poll run by Gallup during Obama’s presidency showed a 6-point increase in his approval rating shortly after he announced bin Laden’s death in May 2011, but by mid-June his gains had evaporated.
Trump has repeatedly complained about receiving inadequate credit for his accomplishments, and it remains to be seen whether his campaign will highlight the death of Baghdadi in a bid to attract the attention of voters in key battleground states. Trump’s campaign manager was silent on Twitter in the hours following the president’s announcement on Sunday, and campaign officials told POLITICO they did not have plans to issue a statement of any kind.
“We defer to POTUS remarks,” Murtaugh said in a text message.
Much like other moments in his presidency, Trump was also accused of including exaggerated details and falsehoods in his version of events surrounding the special operation in Syria.
While thanking the governments of Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iraq for their assistance with the operation, Trump claimed that Russia “opened up” airspace to U.S. air units during the mission in Syria — a detail that a Kremlin spokesman disputed hours later.
“The Russian Defense Ministry has no reliable information about U.S. servicemen conducting an operation for ‘yet another’ elimination of the former Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Turkish-controlled part of the Idlib de-escalation zone,” Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said in a statement, alluding to several reports of Baghdadi’s death over the years.
In another strange turn, Trump appeared to claim that he predicted Osama bin Laden’s role in the World Trade Center attacks in his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve.” The seemingly random assertion came after the president was asked whether his decision to withdraw troops from Syria produced the intelligence at the center of the Baghdadi operation.
The president also drew criticism from congressional Democrats, whom he said he left in the dark until after Baghdadi was pronounced dead because he feared “leaks” about the mission. Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, were the only members of Congress who Trump said he informed of the operation before it took place.
“We notified some, others are being notified now as I speak,” the president told reporters at the White House. “We were going to notify them last night but we decided not to do that because Washington leaks like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Baghdadi’s death “significant” in a statement Sunday afternoon that included a shot at Trump for failing to notify her of the operation beforehand: “The House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top Congressional Leadership were notified of in advance.”
The overnight raid in Syria came amid the continued fallout over Trump’s decision to wind down U.S. operations in the war-torn country, where his troop withdrawal paved the way for Turkish airstrikes earlier this month that killed hundreds of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and civilians. The move has drawn a steady stream of bipartisan criticism, including from members of Trump’s core base — some of whom condemned his plan to lift sanctions against Turkey following a temporary ceasefire negotiated by his administration.
But the reaction among Trump’s Capitol Hill allies on Sunday might have been an early indication that the tides are turning in his favor, something he will probably refer back to if the situation in Syria further deteriorates and he is subject to criticism once again.
Graham, one of the most forceful Republican critics of the president’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, called Baghdadi’s death “a game changer in the war on terror,” while former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who called Trump’s Syria decision a “huge mistake,” slammed the media and Democrats for dismissing the killing of the ISIS leader “as no big deal.”