In his appearance before Congress this week, President Trump delivered a well-written, well-rehearsed speech in a calm manner that he had never before demonstrated publicly.
Its emotional and political high point was undoubtedly the president’s tribute to the sacrifice of U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, killed during a raid in Yemen last month. The spectacle of Owens’ freshly grieving widow added poignancy and power to Trump’s words, as he and his handlers knew it would. His speechwriter even borrowed a verse from the Book of John, allowing Trump to remind us that “as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends — Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country and for our freedom — we will never forget Ryan.”
Of course, Trump’s appreciation for self-sacrifice has strict limits, as he made clear earlier that very day, when he was questioned about responsibility for the controversial raid that cost Owens his life.
Planning for the raid “was started before I got here,” our commander-in-chief said, attempting to shove responsibility onto President Obama. Then he further distanced himself, explaining that “This was something they wanted to do. They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected, the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
“They” lost him … “they” wanted to do this, five times in three sentences the word “they.”
Not one “we.”
It’s as if a grenade rolled into the foxhole, and Trump pushed somebody else on top of it. You know for a fact that if this raid had been deemed a major success, all those “theys” would have become “I,” as in “I ordered this raid …,” “just one week into my administration, I have already ….”
I guarantee that got noticed, up and down the ranks. In the culture of the military, a leader who doesn’t take responsibility, who shifts blame downward onto the subordinates who carried out his or her orders, quickly forfeits the respect needed to make him effective.
People like to make fun of Jimmy Carter, and conservatives in particular like to cast him as weak and hapless. Yet when a hostage rescue effort went awry in the deserts of Iran in 1980, killing eight U.S. servicemen, Carter stepped in front of the TV cameras and did what Trump cannot:
“I made the decision to set our long-developed plans into operation,” Carter said in a national, prime-time broadcast. “I ordered this rescue mission prepared in order to safeguard American lives, to protect America’s national interests, and to reduce the tensions in the world that have been caused among many nations as this crisis has continued.
“It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation. It was my decision to cancel it when problems developed in the placement of our rescue team for a future rescue operation. The responsibility is fully my own.”
Look, I don’t blame Trump for Owens’ death. As a special ops veteran, Owens knew the risks, just as Ambassador Chris Stevens and his staff knew the risks when they traveled through a war zone to Benghazi. When we put people in harm’s way, as we must, loss of life is inevitable. We can’t continue to turn such tragedies into political circuses.
I do, however, take issue with Trump’s effort to distance himself from the consequences of his decisions, and more particularly with his use of Owens’ death as a political weapon. One man made the ultimate sacrifice; the second shrinks from the very concept.