Trump Time Capsule #26: Egypt Air 804

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Donald Trump saying immediately after the EgyptAir crash that anyone who doubted it was due to terrorism was “100% wrong.” (YouTube)

It’s been a month since an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Mediterranean, en route from Paris to Cairo. This past weekend investigators said they had found the plane’s flight recorders (“black boxes”) but that the devices were badly damaged. Therefore it would take a long time to recover information and begin to interpret it.

No one really knows what happened to that plane—attack? mechanical defect? something else?—and, with the cautionary example of still-missing Malaysia Air 370 in mind, it could be months or years before anyone does.

Thus it’s worth remembering that one month ago today, 12 hours after first news of the crash, Donald Trump said this about it in a speech in New Jersey:

What just happened? A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100% wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100% wrong.

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The hardest part of a president’s job is assessing unclear, murky, and contradictory evidence, which is the kind of evidence in most big decisions a president makes. The clearer, easier choices get made by someone else. Real presidents become aware of and burdened by the gap between “probability” and “certainty.” They try to remain aware of the spectrum between choices they must make quickly, even knowing that available information is inadequate, and others where the wisest option is to buy time. John Kennedy kept asking for more time and more options during the Cuban Missile Crisis. George W. Bush rushed with uninformed haste toward his decision to invade Iraq.

Trump was the opposite of deliberative or presidential in rushing toward his conclusion about the EgyptAir crash last month, as he was this month about the ever-more-tangled situation of the Orlando mass-slaughter. Trump immediately declared the shooting an ISIS operation justifying new controls on Muslim immigrants. “It’s war, it’s absolute war!” he said. This weekend Dina Temple-Raston of NPR reported that intelligence officials and investigators had told her they were “becoming increasingly convinced that the motive for this attack had very little — or maybe nothing — to do with ISIS.” In both of these cases, terrorism might end up having been a significant cause. But that’s not clear right now, and it certainly was not during Trump’s immediate spasm of “you’re 100% wrong!” Remember, too, that the Orlando shooting was the occasion for his saying that President Obama was “prioritizing the enemy” by not cracking down on Muslim immigrants. Trump’s responses to both emergencies — Egyptair, and Orlando — might be considered old news, except for this weekend’s reminder of the real-world complexities of each, which real leaders would need to reckon with.

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In one case only has Trump publicly reflected on the difficulty of judging complex evidence and probabilities: the decision by Cincinnati zoo officials to kill the gorilla into whose cage a toddler had fallen. This issue Trump addressed with genuine feeling, depth, and expressed awareness of tradeoffs. Other issues, from whether the U.K. should leave the European Union to whether Japan should build nuclear weapons, require no apparent deliberation at all.