President Trump delivered a fine, effective speech before Congress Tuesday night, and given the post-speech poll numbers, he won’t be ranting anytime soon how the pollsters rig the process against him.
However, that success came despite the fact — and largely because of the fact — the speech had so little relationship to reality. On health care, on immigration, on the economy, the environment and other issues, the world as described by the president bore little resemblance to actual facts on the ground, and the chasm between what he says and what he does will be impossible to disguise as we move deeper into his term.
That sense of unreality began of course with Trump himself, who delivered a well-written, well-rehearsed speech in a calm manner that he had never before demonstrated publicly. He clearly has the salesman’s knack of being whatever the customer wants him to be. In that one scripted hour, hewing close to the teleprompter, he came off sounding something close to normal, to the surprise of Republicans and Democrats alike.
But as we’ve know from the past and will be reminded in the future, the real Trump is nothing like that. The hour that he spent reading that speech is probably the single longest reading session of his adult life.
During the speech, Trump spoke reassuringly of the importance of alliances such as NATO, in contradiction to his own previous statements. In reality, however, you cannot sell yourself as a strong ally while also insisting to the whole world that America is now going to look after its own interests first, last and always, as Trump also did last night. The whole basis of an alliance or good friendship is the willingness to sacrifice your individual interests for those of the larger group, and nothing in Trump’s character or record suggests an appreciation of that fact.
That dichotomy added an additional level of unreality to the most moving part of the evening, when Trump paid 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 speech, 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.”
Contrast that with Trump’s behavior earlier that very day, when he was questioned about responsibility for the controversial raid that cost Owens his life. The unscripted Trump, the real Trump, made clear once again that in times of trouble, his first and only priority is himself.
Planning for the raid “was started before I got here,” he 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 …,” “when I made the difficult decision to …”, “just one week into my administration, I have already ….”
That got noticed, up and down the ranks. In military culture, a commanding officer is expected to protect his personnel, both in battle and afterward. A leader who doesn’t take responsibility, who shifts blame downward onto the subordinates who carried out his or her orders, forfeits the respect that is needed to back him effective and guarantees a short career.
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 acted like a leader:
“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. And while I understand and respect the grief expressed recently by Owens’ father, I think he’s wrong to demand a public investigation of the decision-making behind the operation. 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 as commander in chief to distance himself from the consequences of his decisions, and more particularly with his use of Owens as a political shield. Maybe, just maybe, rushing to approve this kind of operation over dinner just a week after taking office was a bit hasty. The final decision, the only decision that matters, was his.