The killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi marked a significant win for the United States in the war against the terror group and a major achievement for Donald Trump’s national-security policy. But within 24 hours of the raid being announced, the president’s penchant for embellishment had complicated the victory lap he was hoping to take.
Announcing Baghdadi’s death, Trump claimed that the ISIS leader was “whimpering” and likened him to a “dog” in his attempt to escape U.S. forces. Five senior Trump administration officials who watched in real time as the president spoke on Sunday morning each told The Daily Beast that they had no idea where the president got the “whimpering and crying and screaming” detail. Two officials recounted how after they heard that on Sunday, they immediately began messaging each other questions and comments like “uh where is he getting that?”
The comments confused officials in the Pentagon as well, some of who told The Daily Beast that there was no way Trump could have heard Baghdadi’s voice on the Situation Room livestream Saturday night because it did not have audio. Two senior officials said while President Trump could have spoken to commandos on the ground who carried out the raid, they said that has not often been the case in past operations.
And on Monday, questions about where the president got his information continued to make their way to administration officials. At a press briefing Monday afternoon, reporters peppered Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley with questions about Trump’s remarks about Baghdadi “whimpering” and “crying.” Asked whether he too had heard the whimpering and crying from Baghdadi, Esper said: “I don’t have those details.” Milley said the president had planned to talk to unit members involved in the raid, but that he didn’t know the source of the Baghdadi description Trump used.
Baghdadi had commanded forces from hideouts in both Syria and Iraq and was responsible for the killing of thousands of individuals in those countries. He also inspired the kidnapping and killing of American aid workers and journalists as well as spectacular attacks overseas. His death was celebrated as a major breakthrough in a years-long effort to limit ISIS’ reach and operational capacity; and, as such, questions over the validity of Trump’s account of the raid mounted were dismissed by his supporters and Republican operatives as the gripings of a press corps determined to find superficial ways to ding him.
But if history is any guide, those questions could pose real headaches in the weeks and months ahead. In 2011, then-Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan told reporters Osama bin Laden was armed during a U.S. Special Operations raid. When White House press secretary Jay Carney later had to reverse that account, the Obama administration was criticized with trying to embellish the specifics of that similarly historic raid.
Trump has made similar overstatements before. Two people close to the president say that when they heard about his comments on the “crying” late ISIS leader, it reminded them of how Trump privately, as well as publicly, enjoys reflexively insulting his enemies in situations much less weighty than an anti-Islamic State raid. “Whether they’re actually crying or not, [Trump] will very often accuse some person he’s in a fight with, like a celebrity or a politician, of being weak and just crying all over the place,” one of the sources said. “It’s a favorite insult of his.”
When it came to Baghdadi’s death, the president wasn’t the only one who seemed to get over his skis. On Sunday, President Barack Obama’s White House photographer Pete Souza suggested that a picture from the Situation Room featuring Trump had been staged after the attack had concluded based on an erroneous belief of when the raid took place. Souza wasn’t alone either. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) retweeted a post declaring that the picture was taken 95 minutes after the raid.
But Trump wasn’t hampered Monday by a fondness for hyperbole alone. He also seemed incapable of stopping himself from quickly veering back into the familiar territories of personal and cultural grievance. In his first visit to Chicago since he was sworn in as president, Trump delivered a speech blasting the city as a national embarrassment for its gang violence, crime stats, and immigration policies.
“It’s embarrassing to us as a nation,” Trump said at a convention for police chiefs. “All over the world they’re talking about Chicago. Afghanistan is a safe place by comparison.”
During the speech, the president took a shot at Jussie Smollett, the Empire actor who Chicago police said faked a violent hate crime on himself and then tried to pin it on nameless Trump supporters.
Eddie Johnson, the city’s police superintendent, made a point of boycotting Trump’s speech, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot posted to Twitter on Monday: “Rather than belittle Chicago’s communities with hateful and dishonest rhetoric, he needs to go back to D.C. and face his fate” during the impeachment inquiry.
Right after trashing Chicago within its city limits, President Trump headed back to D.C. to attend a Halloween event for trick-or-treaters at the White House. He also resumed a preferred pastime: hate-posting on Twitter.
“Can you believe that Shifty Adam Schiff, the biggest leaker in D.C., and a corrupt politician, is upset that we didn’t inform him before we raided and killed the #1 terrorist in the WORLD!? Wouldn’t be surprised if the Do Nothing Democrats Impeach me over that! DRAIN THE SWAMP!!” he tweeted on Monday evening.
That was sent minutes after he retweeted a December 2015 post by “Steph,” detailing why she called herself a devoted Trump follower: “I’m an American citizen, sick of being pillaged & endangered by my government for every faction, race, religion and cause other than my own.”
—With additional reporting by Sam Stein