WASHINGTON ― President Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk that read: “The buck stops here.”
If Donald Trump’s brief history as commander in chief is any guide, he might want one that says: “Actually, it stops with the generals.”
Four weeks after Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens died in a raid-gone-wrong that also killed numerous Yemeni women and children, Trump has broken with the long tradition of presidents taking responsibility for military operations that result in dead service members ― even as he made Owens’ wife a high point of his first address to Congress on Tuesday night.
“We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William ‘Ryan’ Owens,” Trump said, lifting his eyes to the gallery where she sat. “Ryan died as he lived, a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation.”
In the weeks preceding these remarks, though, Trump blamed his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and his national security staff for the botched raid ― even though Trump personally signed off on it over a dinner that included his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his top political adviser, Steve Bannon, rather than through an in-depth meeting of his National Security Council.
And on Tuesday morning, a mere hours before his big speech, Trump even blamed his own military leaders.
“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, just ― they wanted to do. And they came to me, and they explained what they wanted to do — the generals — who are very respected,” Trump said in a Fox News interview broadcast Tuesday morning. “And they lost Ryan.”
Trump put the raid back in the spotlight on Tuesday night by bringing Owens’ widow to his first congressional address. Carryn Owens wept openly and looked skyward, earning a prolonged standing ovation. Trump told those gathered in the House chambers and the millions watching on television that he had been told by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the raid had been a success.
“Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemy. Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” Trump said.
(NBC reported Wednesday that according to 10 U.S. officials, none of the intelligence from that raid appears to be truly significant so far.)
After more applause, Trump added: “And Ryan is looking down right now. You know that. And he’s very happy, because I think he just broke a record.”
Colin Kahl, former Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, has been a leading voice criticizing Trump’s national security decision making ― and he was quick to hammer Trump for his use of Carryn Owen’s grief. “Owen’s widow deserved every second of the ovation last night,” Kahl wrote Wednesday morning. “Trump, who greenlit [the] raid with little deliberation, didn’t.”
Trump had invited Carryn Owen to visit the White House on Jan. 30, the day after her husband was killed, and she made the decision to attend the president’s address without any pressure from Trump, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told the press on Wednesday.
Spicer also defended Trump’s decision to mention the Owens family in the speech. “We have the right to honor the people who have served this nation and the sacrifice that the families make of those who serve,” Spicer said.
Trump did not directly monitor the raid ― the first high-risk military operation of his term ― as it was happening from the Situation Room. According to Spicer, Trump was in his residence and was continually updated by National Security Council staff.
Spicer would not say what Trump was doing the evening of Jan. 28, while the firefight that killed Owens was taking place eight time zones to the east.
However, Trump’s Twitter account was active, sending out, and then deleting, a tweet promoting a coming TV appearance. The White House press office did not respond to The Huffington Post’s queries about whether it was Trump or an aide who was responsible for those tweets.
Nor did Spicer respond to a query about whether Trump has, at any point since the raid, accepted responsibility for the problems that arose ― including the fact that fighters with the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorist group found out about the raid early on, leading to far more armed resistance than anticipated. This caused U.S. commandos to call in airstrikes that resulted in between 10 and 30 civilian deaths. What’s more, a reported target of the raid, AQAP leader Qassim al Rimi, was not in the compound and later taunted Trump in recorded messages.
The White House initially claimed the raid killed 14 AQAP fighters and netted laptop computers and cellphones that provided valuable intelligence. A few days later, Spicer began arguing that the Obama administration had approved the raid, and that military leaders were simply waiting for the next moonless night (which happened to occur after Trump took office), so Trump’s approval was essentially a formality. Eventually, Spicer took to claiming that to question the success of the raid was to dishonor Owen’s death.
Trump’s effort to shift the blame to Obama’s military planners represents a break with a long tradition of presidents accepting responsibility for botched military operations, regardless of the circumstances.
The planning for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, for example, began under President Dwight Eisenhower. Nevertheless, President John F. Kennedy accepted the blame when the attempt to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro failed.
President Jimmy Carter told the nation “the responsibility is fully my own” when eight service members were killed in a sandstorm-doomed attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980.
In 1983, after 241 service members died in a suicide bomb attack on U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, President Ronald Reagan said: “If there is to be blame, it properly rests here in this office and with this president.”
And just four years ago, after the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, Obama said: “I’m the president and I’m always responsible.”