On Sunday, President Trump announced that a raid by US forces the previous day had led to the death of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “He died like a dog,” the president said in an awkwardly gleeful public address. The speech was lurid in its detail; the New York Times pointed out that he repeated the word “whimpering” no fewer than six times.
After US forces killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, a photograph of president Obama and his senior staff watching the raid from the situation room became instantly iconic. The picture, taken by official White House photographer Pete Souza, perfectly captured the intensity of the moment. Obama sits leant forward, tense.
After the al-Baghdadi announcement on Sunday, the White House released a photograph of the president and his senior staff in the situation room in similar style. Clearly, the Trump administration wanted to evoke a political response which would echo the one that followed the bin Laden raid.
But the pictures served mainly to highlight the stark difference between Trump and his predecessor. In the Obama picture, everyone is staring off-screen to the left of the photographer, clearly gazing intently at the screens on which the raid took place.
The new picture, by contrast (at the top of this article), is clearly staged. Trump and his aides stare straight down the lens. Their focus is not on any activity other than their picture being taken. As if his approach to the killing as an opportunity for political point-scoring was still in doubt, Trump sent out a tweet teasing the announcement like a TV trailer – “Something very big has just happened!”
Trump’s gloating, near-fetishistic description of the event itself, too, was quickly called into question. Mark Esper, the secretary of defence, who was part of the team monitoring the raid, has said he didn’t know anything about any “whimpering”.
Other officials present have said that Trump was monitoring the raid with only a feed from an aerial drone, there was no way for him to have picked up that kind of detail. Maybe he got the details another way – but this president is way past any benefit of the doubt in terms of reasons to take him at his word.
Nonetheless, reporting has confirmed that al-Baghdadi is, indeed, dead, however murky the actual details. “Without question, it is a major accomplishment,” Brett Bruen, president of consulting firm Global Situation Room and a former US diplomat who served as Obama’s director of global engagement, told me, saying it would be “a major blow to Isis propaganda and recruitment efforts”.
But he also saw potential trouble ahead. The raid itself, according to the Times, had to be rushed and was made more difficult and potentially more risky because of the recent sudden US withdrawal from the region. Moreover, ironically, the success of the raid depended on key intelligence from America’s Kurdish allies in the region – even as the Trump administration shamefully abandons them by withdrawing and giving Turkey the tacit green light to move in and attack them.
Bruen said the raid “raises the question as whether or not we should be leaving the battlefield at this stage” because it showed that Syria is “still a very permissive environment for extremist leaders to operate.”
“One has to ask if we will continue to have the same intelligence and operational capabilities a few months from now without having our people on the ground,” he added.
“Obama knew better than to do a victory dance and fire off a few cheap insults,” Bruen said. “That only emboldens the extremists efforts to use their leaders death as a means of filling their ranks and their coffers. Trump gloating will go down poorly with our allies in the region, on whom we will increasingly depend as we pull our forces and intelligence capabilities off the battlefield.”
In any case, al-Baghdadi’s death is unlikely to provide Trump with the kind of dramatic public opinion boost he so clearly craves – ie, one like bin Laden’s death gave Obama. Trump even felt compelled to make the direct comparison in his announcement on Sunday, saying “Osama bin Laden was very big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country, a caliphate.”
In terms of opinion, however, he is probably wrong. Al-Baghdadi was a monster, but he was not nearly as much of a household name as bin Laden was. And though it will give his political base a boost, the characteristically bizarre way that Trump announced it probably won’t help much in terms of convincing anyone who remains undecided about him, or win over many voters who dislike him.
Indeed, on Sunday evening, soon after making the announcement, in what he obviously hoped would be a moment of personal triumph, Trump attended a baseball game at Nationals Park – and was greeted with boos and chants of “lock him up.”