How Trump used a U.S. soldier’s death to finally become ‘presidential’
A timeline of Trump’s transition from zero to hero.
Late 2016: President Obama declines
President Obama decides not to approve a proposal from the Department of Defense that would expand their authority to conduct ground operations in Yemen. Obama believes it would represent an escalation of U.S. involvement in the area, and, as his term is almost over, he recommends the incoming administration perform a risk analysis of the proposal and any raids that will be authorized through it.
In President Obama and President Bush’s administrations, such analysis consisted of lengthy meetings in the Situation Room, where key players discussed operational plan, operational goals, and a legal assessment.
“Usually, a President goes down to the Situation Room and is presented with what they call a full package for the attack. There’s a legal assessment of the legal authorities under which they’re doing these,” according to David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times.
“There’s a risk assessment to the commandos who would be doing it. There is a risk assessment of what could happen to civilians who are in the area.”
January 25, 2017: President Trump approves raid over dinner
Former nat sec adviser Michael Flynn presents newly inaugurated President Trump with a memo concerning a planned raid in Yakla Village in the Al Bayda province in central Yemen. The mission would target al Qaeda leader Qasim al-Rimi. That night, President Trump has dinner with Flynn, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, over which the plans for the raid are discussed.
Also in attendance are Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon. Kushner has no military experience. Bannon served in the U.S. Navy for seven years in the late ’70s.
Over dinner, the advisers reportedly tell Trump how President Obama had been “too cowardly” to sign off on the mission. The president is told the attack is risky — ground operations of this nature are rare — but the capture or killing of al-Rimi would justify it. By the end of the meal, Trump has given the go-ahead for the raid, citing Mattis, who had already approved the mission on January 20, his first day on the job.
Military officials later explain to Reuters that the approval was given “without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”
January 29, 2017: The raid
Several dozen Navy SEALs and soldiers from the United Arab Emirates are informed on their way to the raid site that al Qaeda forces has become aware of their arrival. The team “found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists,” officials later claimed.
For 50 minutes, U.S. and U.A.E. forces engage in a heavy firefight with al Qaeda forces, during which some 30 civilians, at least 10 of whom are children, one an eight-year-old American citizen, are killed. U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens is also killed. A $75 million aircraft is damaged during the raid and has to be destroyed by friendly fire. Al-Rimi is not captured. He either escapes or was not in the area to being with.
January 29, 2017: The president tweets
President Trump is not present in the Situation Room at the time of the raid. “The President was here in the residence. He was kept in touch with his national security staff.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer later tells reporters.
As the raid was under way, the president tweets, and subsequently deletes, a message about an upcoming television appearance: “I will be interviewed by @TheBrodyFile on tonight at 11pm. Enjoy!”
In the hours after the raid, the president sends the following tweet.
Somebody with aptitude and conviction should buy the FAKE NEWS and failing @nytimes and either run it correctly or let it fold with dignity!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 29, 2017
February 1, 2017: The aftermath
Sean Spicer tells the White House Press Corps the raid “gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil.” No mention of al-Rimi is made.
February 3, 2017: “Site exploitation mission”
The Pentagon refers to the raid as a “site exploitation mission” meant to gather intelligence. No mention of al-Rimi is made. As evidence of the intelligence gathered, military officials offer a bomb-making video that has been publicly available on the internet for 10 years.
February 6, 2017: Al-Rimi releases audio
NBC News reveals that the raid in Yemen was not merely an intelligence gathering mission and identifies al-Rimi as its secret target. Al-Rimi releases an audio recording taunting the United States and President Trump. “The fool of the White House got slapped at the beginning of his road in your lands,” al-Rimi boasts in the recording.
February 9, 2017: “A complete success”
Given the previously unacknowledged escape of al-Rimi, when asked about whether the White House considers the Yemen raid a success, Spicer makes the following statement:
It’s absolutely a success, and I think anyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens. He fought knowing what was at stake in that mission. And anybody who would suggest otherwise doesn’t fully appreciate how successful that mission was. … I think anybody who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and [does a] disservice to the life of Chief Owens.
The White House does not acknowledge al-Rimi as a target of the mission.
February 26, 2017: The Navy SEAL’s father
Bill Owens, the father of the fallen Navy SEAL, refuses to meet with President Trump, saying his “conscience wouldn’t let me talk to” him. Owens also calls for an investigation into the raid and its approval, telling the Miami Herald:
“Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation… I want an investigation… The government owes my son an investigation. 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?”
February 28, 2018, 2:50 a.m.: No actionable intelligence
Senior U.S. officials confirm that no new or significant intelligence was produced by the mission.
February 28, 2018, 8:00 a.m.: The president passes the buck
Ahead of his first address to both chambers of Congress, the president appears on “Fox and Friends,” where he tells the hosts that the mission “was started before I got here.”
“This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do,” Trump explains. “And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. And they lost Ryan.”
February 28, 2017, 10:00 p.m.: The Navy SEAL’s widow
President Trump invites Carryn Owens, wife of the fallen Navy SEAL, to attend his first address to Congress. While speaking of the need to build up America’s military, the president points her out in the audience.
“We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William [Ryan] Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero — battling against terrorism and securing our nation.”
A crying Owens receives a standing ovation that lasts more than two minutes.
“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,’” Trump says.
“Ryan is looking down right now, and he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record,” the president adds, referring to the standing ovation.
February 28, 2017, 10:44 p.m.: A president is born
Political pundits praise Trump’s performance during the address, specifically his words to the widow of the Navy SEAL who was killed on his watch.
— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) March 1, 2017
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.
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) March 1, 2017
— Andrew Kirell (@AndrewKirell) March 1, 2017