It was the cinematic moment Donald Trump had been craving at this perilous point in his presidency—and when it arrived, he made sure it didn’t go to waste. President Trump’s vivid—perhaps too vivid?—re-creation of the U.S. Special Forces raid that killed the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Saturday night is sure to become a go-to story for the remainder of his time in office, and figure prominently into his messaging as he seeks reelection next year.
Ever the showman, Trump began building suspense Saturday night, tweeting that “Something very big has just happened!” Shortly after 9 a.m. yesterday morning, the president appeared in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House and, with all the gritty detail he could muster—disclosures that his intelligence officials might regret—confirmed what had already started to trickle out: Baghdadi was dead.
Though starkly different in tone, Trump’s announcement echoed the successful conclusion of a terrorist manhunt from another era. On May 2, 2011, Barack Obama made a surprise Sunday-night appearance in the East Room to reveal that U.S. forces had killed the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11 attacks.
Lest anyone think that this achievement was of lesser consequence, Trump went out of his way to paint Baghdadi as an even bigger threat to American security than bin Laden was. Hyperbole is a classic Trumpian reflex. It’s not enough for U.S. forces to vanquish an enemy leader; it has to be the most menacing terrorist the nation has ever confronted—even though bin Laden orchestrated the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Baghdadi, Trump said, “is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever. Osama bin Laden was very big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This [Baghdadi] is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, ‘a country,’ a caliphate, and was trying to do it again.”
Obama’s role in finding and killing bin Laden has been on Trump’s mind for years. When fielding questions after his statement, Trump referenced a book he released the year before the 9/11 attack, The America We Deserve, that he said warned bin Laden must be killed. (This is false.)
“I don’t get any credit for this, but that’s okay. I never do,” Trump said at the news conference.
As ever, there’s a tweet from years past that’s relevant to the moment. In 2012, Trump tweeted that Obama “works hard to take all the credit away from” the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden in a compound in Pakistan. Yesterday morning, Trump pointed to the centrality of his own contribution. Since his first day in office, “I would say, Where is al-Baghdadi? I want al-Baghdadi. We would kill terrorist leaders, but there were names I never heard of … I kept saying, Where is al-Baghdadi? And a couple of weeks ago, they were able to scope him out.”
The White House declined to comment about Trump’s messaging tactics.
News of the successful raid comes at an auspicious moment for Trump. Impeachment hearings are producing a trove of revelations that Trump and his underlings pressured Ukraine into digging up political dirt on his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. With Baghdadi’s death, Trump can try to shift the conversation and showcase his credentials as commander in chief. He can recount this story on the campaign trail for the next 12 months, delighting his base with details that he learned—and can declassify at will—while watching the operation unfold in real time.
Trump returned to the White House around 4:20 p.m. ET Saturday after playing golf at his private club in Northern Virginia with two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and David Perdue, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred. Then, at about 5 p.m., Trump said he went down to the Situation Room to watch the raid along with Vice President Mike Pence; General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Mark Esper; and others.
The drama that Trump said he witnessed on a live feed the military had arranged sounded straight out of the movies. It was as if he were scripting a sequel to Zero Dark Thirty, the film about the search for bin Laden. In Trump’s telling, there were heroes—notably a “beautiful dog, a talented dog” that was wounded in the operation (don’t be shocked if the dog makes a cameo on the White House grounds sometime soon). There were villains, chiefly Baghdadi, who Trump described as “whimpering and crying and screaming” as he met his fate. And there was action. Plenty of action, which Trump narrated in impressionistic, you-are-there fashion.
U.S. forces, Trump said, “did a lot of shooting and a lot of blasting.” Rather than knock politely on the front door as a “normal person” would, Trump said, “they blasted their way into the house and a very heavy wall, and it took them literally seconds. By the time those things went off, they had a beautiful, big hole and they ran in and they got everybody by surprise.”
No one at the news conference asked Trump about impeachment, and Trump didn’t bring the subject up. He did make what seemed like one oblique reference to his quarrels with the agents who looked into whether his 2016 campaign colluded with Russia.
He commended “intelligence officials” who helped track down Baghdadi. “That’s what they should be focused on,” he said, unprompted.
For Trump’s potential 2020 general-election rivals, the episode is a warning sign, an illustration of how sitting presidents can leverage the trappings of office. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts can tell voters how she went after Wall Street, but she is not able to say she took down one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.
Exploiting the powers of incumbency is part of a familiar playbook for presidents facing scandal. Before his downfall in Watergate, President Richard Nixon left for a trip to the Middle East in the summer of 1974 in hopes of looking like a statesman. He was greeted as a hero in Israel, with 100,000 people coming out to see his motorcade as he drove through Jerusalem.
It didn’t quite work. Two months later, Nixon resigned and was back home in San Clemente, California.
“There’s no question that Nixon wrapped the presidency around himself as a defense,” John Dean, Nixon’s former White House counsel and a Watergate whistle-blower, told me in a recent interview. “The way he did it, particularly as it got rougher toward the end, was foreign travel. Advance people would give him adoring crowds on the evening news, when he wasn’t getting adoring crowds at home.”
The question is whether Trump has the self-discipline to maximize the moment. From past experience, it’s doubtful a day will pass before Trump pivots from celebrating the bravery of the Special Forces to complaining about the perfidy of House Democrats. Grievance is another Trumpian reflex. “Nixon’s strong suit as president was foreign affairs,” Dean told me. “Trump’s strong suit seems to be executive time”—the White House staff’s code for the hours he spends in the residence watching TV and tweeting.
But one thing’s for sure: During the Monday-morning edition of “executive time,” Trump will watch newscasters discuss what is one of his biggest and clearest victories to date.