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.