The prolonged standing ovation that President Donald Trump led on Tuesday for the widow of a fallen US commando was an effective bit of political theater. It also masked the lingering controversy over the botched raid in Yemen that took the life of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, which has injected a grieving family into a raging political debate about whether the White House erred in signing off on the mission.
Near the end of his high-profile speech to Congress Tuesday, Trump paused to pay tribute to Owens’s widow, Carryn Owens, who was sitting next to the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump.
“Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero — battling against terrorism and securing our nation,” Trump said as Carryn Owens began to cry. “I just spoke to Gen. Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, ‘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 enemies.’"
It was one of the only lines in Trump’s speech that brought lawmakers from both parties to their feet. It was also, at best, a debatable assessment of the mission that took Owens’s life.
Owens, a member of the military’s elite SEAL Team 6, was killed in late January after his unit came under intense fire during an assault on a fortified terrorist compound in Yemen. The Pentagon said the SEALs killed at least 14 militants from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, but also acknowledged that at least 25 civilians — including the 8-year-old daughter of a militant who had been killed by a US drone years earlier — were killed in the fighting.
The deaths, and the fact that the SEALs didn’t kill or capture the al-Qaeda leaders they were targeting, prompted immediate questions about why Trump had greenlit the operation, and about whether the intelligence gathered at the scene was worth the high human and financial cost (a $70 million US aircraft was also destroyed during the mission).
Owens’s father, Bill, refused to meet with Trump after his son’s body was brought back to the US because of his anger over the raid, which marked a rare use of American ground forces inside Yemen.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to see him,” Owens told a military chaplain at Dover Air Force Base, according to a report by the Miami Herald. “I told them I didn’t want to make a scene about it, but my conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him.”
The Pentagon has insisted that the raid produced “actionable intelligence,” but offered no details to substantiate the claim. That assessment isn’t universally shared: NBC News reported Tuesday that the raid had “so far yielded no significant intelligence.”
A failed raid in Yemen set off a political firestorm back in the US
The fallout from the raid has been politically toxic for weeks. In its immediate aftermath, Trump officials said the raid had been planned during the waning weeks of the Obama administration and that they had accepted the military’s recommendation to go forward with it. Obama administration officials countered that Trump was simply trying to pass the blame for the botched mission.
"In a nutshell, Trump and his team owns the process and the ultimate decision - and the consequences," Colin Kahl, a national security official in the Obama administration, said on Twitter after the raid.
Kahl wasn’t the only one critical of the raid. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the GOP’s most respected voices on national security issues, flatly labeled it a failure.
"When you lose a $75 million airplane and, more importantly, an American life is lost … I don't believe you can call it a success," McCain told NBC News in early February.
His remark prompted a fierce, and jarringly ill-informed, response from White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who told reporters that McCain or any anyone else who questioned the success of the raid “owes an apology” and “does a disservice to the life of Chief Owens.” McCain, unsurprisingly, doubled down on his criticism of the raid, and of Spicer.
Most presidents take responsibility for failed raids. Trump blamed the military.
The simmering controversy over the raid flared up again on Tuesday when Trump broke with decades of presidential precedent and blamed the military for the failed operation — and for Owens's death — rather than taking responsibility himself.
“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” Trump said. “They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
As Phillip Carter wrote for Vox, most presidents of both parties have stepped up and accepted blame for failed military operations, regardless of whether they were their fault. Trump, Carter wrote, took a very different path:
Still, Trump’s blunt refusal to accept personal responsibility for the Yemen raid burns because it marks such an incredible betrayal of his office and the awesome responsibility that our president must shoulder, especially in the national security sphere. A president who passes the buck is not one we can trust to lead our military or keep us safe.
The president’s decision to lavish so much attention on Carryn Owens, meanwhile, sparked a torrent of angry responses on Twitter, with critics arguing that he was trying to use her grief for political gain.
Twitter TL reaction to Ryan Owens moment:— Soldier Jane (@sgtjanedoe) March 1, 2017
Press: how powerful and moving
Veteran friends: this is gross and uncomfortable
Just imagine Lincoln exploiting a soldier's death so shamelessly for partisan end. Or Eisenhower, Reagan or either Bush.— (((Steve Chapman))) (@SteveChapman13) March 1, 2017
Trump just spent 5 minutes telling the father of a fallen soldier to buzz off https://t.co/x55kpSZkHE— Kia Makarechi (@Kia_Mak) March 1, 2017
There are far more generous interpretations; Trump may have been genuinely moved by the family’s loss, and genuinely eager to call attention to the sacrifice of a brave young American. There is much we still don’t know about the exact circumstances of Ryan Owens’s death. There is one thing, though, that we can say for sure: It’s a far more complicated story than Trump’s long standing ovation would suggest.