The president, who appears to relish violent rhetoric, personal boasting, the defeat of his enemies, and the simplicity of a good vs. evil narrative, announced on Sunday morning that U.S. Special Forces had killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a raid in northwestern Syria on Saturday. With such a natural lining up of his interests, Trump turned the event into a spectacle, even promoting the press conference on Twitter the night before.
Any time President Trump speaks for 48 minutes straight, you can expect some pretty unhinged remarks; on Sunday, things started to get weird just 90 seconds in, when Trump described the ISIS leader as“whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to the back of a tunnel in his compound, where he detonated a suicide vest as he was surrounded by three of his children. The president, who did little to hide his enjoyment in the moment, said that “it was just like a movie.”
Trump’s aim seemed to be to dehumanize al-Baghdadi, the terrorist responsible for the Yazidi genocide, systematic sex slavery within ISIS-controlled territory, and the deaths of thousands in the region. “He was a gutless animal,” Trump said, later adding that “he died in a vicious and violent way, as a coward, running and crying.” He employed one of his frequent, incoherent, jabs at al-Baghdadi, claiming that he “died like a dog.” In a bizarre piece of symmetry, as Trump degraded the terrorist, he elevated a military canine involved in the raid: “Our K-9, as they call it — I call it a dog, a beautiful dog, a talented dog — was injured and brought back, but we had no soldier injured … We had nobody even hurt. That’s why the dog was so great.”
Trump also used the occasion of his administration’s greatest national-security victory to date to celebrate himself. After explaining the Islamic State’s achievement in recruiting disaffected young men online, he complimented the terrorist organization: “You know, they use the internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump.” The next few sentences were a blur: “And what they’ve done with the internet through recruiting and everything — and that’s why he died like a dog, he died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming and crying. And frankly that’s something that should be brought out.”
He also found a way to weave in some historical revisionism, claiming that “if you read about the history of Donald Trump, I was a civilian. I had absolutely nothing to do with going into Iraq and I was totally against it.” That’s a standard Trump lie, though the next one was new to the canon: “I wrote a book. A really very successful book. And in that book, about a year before the World Trade Center was blown up, I said there’s somebody named Osama bin Laden, you better kill him or take him out, something to that effect, he’s big trouble … And I’m saying to people, take out Osama bin Laden, that nobody ever heard of.” Trump mentioned bin Laden in his 2000 book, but did not call for his death or warn that he would conduct a major terror attack against the U.S. — and of course, bin Laden was a well-known figure at the time.
Trump was certainly aware of the moment eight years ago when President Obama more professionally announced the death of bin Laden — and maturely claimed that his terrorist death outdid that of his predecessor. “This is the worst ever,” he said. “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. And was trying to do it again.”
Dehumanizing enemies, claiming to upstage Obama, celebrating details of war like they existed only on television — Trump was hitting all the high notes, and his campaign soon added to the performance. Hours later, Trump was using the death of al-Baghdadi as a fundraising pitch, making it doubtful that he will take the advice he gave during the 2012 election, when he suggested people stop congratulating Obama on the death of bin Laden.