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.