‘Crying terrorist’ only Donald Trump can hear
Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, dismissed “trying to pick apart the details of the death” of the leader of the Islamic State. “Is it not possible to just celebrate that a terrorist, murderer and rapist has been killed?” she asked in an email.
Pressed on where Trump got the details he shared on national television, she said, “We are not going to get into any of the operational details of how the president receives information.” Asked if his account was true, she did not respond.
That Trump seems to have made up the scene of a whimpering terrorist may be shocking on one level yet not all that surprising from a President who over the years has made a habit of inventing people who do not exist and events that did not happen.
Trump’s flexibility with fact has become such an established feature of his presidency that polls show most Americans, including even many of his own supporters, do not, as a rule, take him at his word.
What may be most telling about the episode is how little attention the disparity of details received.
In the past, presidential words were scrutinised with forensic exactitude and any variance from the established record could do lasting political damage. In the era of Trumpian truth, misstatements and lies are washed away by the next story, prompting Pinocchios from fact checkers and scolding from Democrats and Never Trumpers while Republicans dismiss them with that’s-just-Trump-being-Trump weariness.
“Donald Trump is not simply a serial liar; he is attempting to murder the very idea of truth, which is even worse,” said Peter Wehner, a former strategic adviser to President George W. Bush and an outspoken critic of Trump. “Because without truth, a free society cannot operate.”
Mark K. Updegrove, a presidential historian who wrote a book about Bush and his father, President George Bush, said neither of those commanders in chief nor President Barack Obama would have been so loose with the truth about so momentous an occasion. Events like the killing of Osama bin Laden, he said, were treated with solemnity and restraint.
“In the days of reality television, humility is not enough,” said Updegrove, who is also President and chief
executive of the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation in Austin.
Trump, the reality television veteran, “has to continue to add to the inherent drama of the moment, not only bragging about the despot being brought to justice but happening in the most humiliating way. He can’t help himself”.
It was a vivid scene worthy of the ending of a Hollywood thriller, the image of a ruthless terrorist mastermind finally brought to justice “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to his death. But it may be no more true than a movie script.
In the days since President Trump gave the world a graphic account of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s last minutes, no evidence has emerged to confirm it. The secretary of defence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the regional commander who oversaw the operation that killed the leader of the Islamic State all say they have no idea what the President was talking about.
Four other defence department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to share details of the raid, said they had seen no after-action reports, situation reports or other communications that support Trump’s claim. Nor did they have any indication that Trump spoke with any of the Delta Force commandos or ground commanders in the hours between the Saturday night raid and his Sunday morning televised announcement.
One American official who was deeply familiar with the operation dismissed the President’s version of events as mere grandstanding.
Another senior official briefed extensively on the mission said, “I don’t know how he would know that. It sounds like something he made up.” The surveillance drone video Trump watched in the Situation Room had no live audio.
The White House, for its part, has provided neither corroboration nor explanation of the President’s account.