The top target on America’s most wanted list of terrorists is dead.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State, was killed in a daring raid by U.S. special forces on his compound in northwestern Syria. Once cornered in an underground tunnel, he detonated an explosive vest, killing himself and three children.
“Something very big has just happened!” President Trump teased in a tweet a few hours later, as if he was promoting an upcoming television special.
He followed up the next morning at the White House with an appearance in the Diplomatic Reception Room — the perfect spot for a presidential “made for TV” moment. He was supposed to read a brief statement. Instead, President Trump stayed in front of the cameras for 48 minutes, clearly relishing the attention.
Very much the showman, the president painted a vivid — some would say “unfiltered” — picture of events. There was more than a little “poetic license” in play as he told the tale of al-Baghdadi’s capture and its aftermath. Some of his comments were just wrong, while others were based on highly sensitive information about the operation that should have never been made public.
In short, he treated the daring raid like a reality show, describing how the trapped terrorist leader was “crying and screaming” while American special forces chased him. The nation’s top military officer — General Mark Milley — later admitted to reporters that he didn’t know where the president got that information.
“He seemed to take particular joy in recounting gruesome, gory details,” was how the Washington Post put it, noting the president repeated them with a certain bravado.
“He died like a dog, he died like a coward, he was whimpering, screaming and crying,” Trump said. When the president was asked later if he was actually able to hear the whimpering on the live video feed of the operation that he watched with top military aides in the White House Situation Room, Trump wouldn’t answer.
He did say, however, that it was “as though you were watching a movie.”
It was “big.” It was “historic.” Trump said it was bigger than the capture of Osama bin Laden… and that he, as commander-in-chief, should get top billing in this incredible show.
“Osama bin Laden was very big but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center,” Trump said. “This is a man who built a whole… country, a caliphate, and was trying to do it again.”
The truth is both men were evil incarnate and the world is better off without them. But Trump seems to be misjudging the American public here.
The fact is all of us know about bin Laden— he was the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. But while most are aware of ISIS and appalled by its cruelty, very few Americans outside Washington would recognize al-Baghdadi’s name. He simply did not personify ISIS here, the way bin Laden WAS al-Qaida.
The death of the founder of ISIS is important — everyone in Washington agrees. The leader of a terrorist movement that used beheadings and rape as weapons of war is now gone, thanks to the valiant efforts of an American military team with strong intelligence support. But to Donald Trump it is more. It is vindication.
The president was well into his remarks before he thanked those outside the U.S. who helped make this mission a success. To many it was worth noting that the first country he mentioned was Russia. The last group to get a rather begrudging thanks was the Kurdish-led force that played a key role for years in the defeat of ISIS in Syria.
One of the Syrian Kurd commanders later told the New York Times that his group had helped confirm al-Baghdadi’s identity by getting the evidence — underwear and a blood sample — used for DNA testing. They also apparently, had a source who was able to provide detailed information about the terrorist leader’s hide-out.
This, despite the fact that President Trump recently announced a pull-out of U.S. forces from the area around Syria’s border with Turkey, in effect abandoning the Syrian Kurds. Still, they stood with the Americans throughout this mission.
They provided vital clues for the U.S. intelligence community, which won rare praise for its work from the president. He may have scorned the CIA and its partner agencies in the past, but now Trump is happy. They just handed him what he has longed for: “a win.”
And it is a win that he desperately needs.
We can’t forget that almost everything that happens now is being seen here through the prism of the 2020 U.S. national election.
Both the presidency and control of Congress are at stake and with a year to go until election day, Donald Trump’s overall public approval ratings are not good.
He is consistently polling at under 50% — almost unheard of for a president serving at a time when the economy is fairly strong.
Clearly there was a hope at the White House that the death of the leader of ISIS would improve his standing and distract attention from the impeachment process now underway on Capitol Hill.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died on a Saturday evening, Washington time. By Tuesday morning, the big story in America was once again impeachment — specifically, the testimony of a U.S. army officer detailed to the White House who was assigned to listen in to Trump’s July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — considered a Ukraine expert — said he was disturbed by President Trump’s demand that Ukraine investigate one of his political rivals, former vice-president Joe Biden.
He is the first White House official who listened to the call to testify. He may not be the last.
Trump wants the election to be about the economy.
Instead, it may be all about the intersection of foreign policy and politics.