President Donald Trump received widespread praise for his tribute to Navy SEAL Ryan Owens on Tuesday night during his joint address to Congress. NBC’s Katy Tur tweeted “What the President did w Owen’s widow was capital-P Presidential. It was the single most extraordinary moment I’ve seen from Trump—by far.” Van Jones, a frequent Trump critic on CNN, called the tribute “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period” and concluded Trump “became President of the United States.” The Washington Post’s ever-credulous Chris Cilizza wrote a piece called “What the emotional moment with a Navy SEAL’s widow proves about President Trump.” (Spoilers: “Trump understands moments… very powerful stuff… Trump showed some grace.”)
It was a powerful moment, if you don’t know anything about the raid besides what Trump described Tuesday. But seen with the benefit of facts about the failed mission, it was a grotesque attempt to paper over increasing controversy about the administration’s execution of the mission that took Owens’s life.
The raid on a compound in the village of Yakla, in central Yemen, was contemplated during the late stages of Barack Obama’s presidency. But it wasn’t carried out because the Obama administration considered it an “escalation of US involvement in Yemen,” according to Colin Kahl, a former national-security adviser to vice president Joe Biden. Obama officials shelved the plan so the next administration could run a “deliberative” process, according to Kahl. Trump green-lit the plan five days into his presidency, over dinner at the White House.
Almost everything went wrong. The targets of the raid, members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, were not there. The mission was somehow compromised from the beginning—the targets knew the SEALs were on the way. “They kind of knew they were screwed from the beginning,” one former SEAL Team 6 official told The New York Times.
As many as 30 civilians were killed in the subsequent firefight, including women and children. Owens was also killed. A $70 million helicopter had to be destroyed.
Not only were no targets captured or killed, but senior Pentagon officials are now saying that no significant intelligence came from the raid.
Failed missions that claim lives always require a serious, self-critical review. “When we look at evidently very little actual intelligence out, the loss of a high-performance aircraft and above all the loss of a highly trained special forces member of SEAL Team 6, I think we need to understand why this mission, why now, what happened, and what the actual output was,” retired Adm. James Stavridis told NBC News.
Owens’s father has questions, too—he refused to meet with Trump at Dover Air Force base when his son’s remains returned to the United States. “Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why? For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen—everything was missiles and drones—because there was not a target worth one American life. Now, all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?’’ he told The Miami Herald last weekend.
But sober self-criticism is not what Trump does. On the very morning of his joint address, Trump was clumsily trying to pass off the failures of the mission onto the Army and the Defense Department in an interview with the anchors of Fox & Friends. “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do. They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do—the generals—who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
Twelve hours after he shifted blame for what went wrong, he gave a theatrical performance in front of Congress that attempted to hog the credit. He contradicted reports about no intelligence being gathered, and said, “I just spoke to General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, ‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.’ ” (Note that even here, Trump is outsourcing responsibility for that claim to his defense secretary.)
It was a critical moment in his presidency. Confronted with having sent his first American service member to die—and with questions swirling about the propriety of the mission—Trump appeared to lie about the details, and use the man’s widow as a prop.
It isn’t something he should be rewarded for, especially given his unseemly history of weaponizing grief for political advantage. That very night, up in the gallery, sitting with first lady Melania Trump, were family members of people killed by undocumented immigrants—a minor and declining trend that Trump aggrandizes for his benefit. There was a whole night at the Republican National Convention featuring the widows of US personnel killed at Benghazi, another tragedy Trump twisted to his ends.
Trump was at it again Tuesday, and it appeared to work. Politico wrote: “In the moment, any lingering questions about whether the highly risky operation, approved by Trump’s new defense secretary, were swallowed up in the poignancy of the moment, as applause rose in the House chamber and the television cameras focused in on Carryn Owens’ tear-streaked face.”
Those questions cannot be swallowed up, for Owens’s sake and for the sake of other currently enlisted personnel. And if Trump has now internalized the lesson that the Yakla episode played to his political benefit, that could have grave consequences down the line when he is presented with more opportunities to send troops into harm’s way.