THE BIG IDEA: Military victories and playoff baseball traditionally brought Americans together. That’s not what happened on Sunday.
When President Trump announced on Sunday morning that Islamic State founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a U.S. military operation in Syria, he thanked the Russians for their help while explaining that he kept Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the dark because he was afraid of leaks. “I wanted to make sure this kept secret,” Trump reasoned. “I don’t want to have men lost – and women. I don’t want to have people lost. … We were going to notify them last night, but we decided not to do that because Washington leaks like I’ve never seen before. There’s a very small group of people that knew about this … A leak could have cost the death of all of them.”
It’s not that Trump kept lawmakers out of the loop. Trump volunteered that he told congressional Republicans, including Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.), whom he called a “great gentleman,” and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), whom he described as a “very strong hawk” who “agrees with what we’re doing now.”
Trump’s comments at the start of the day highlighted how politicized national security has become in this era. Pelosi spent more than two decades on the House Intelligence Committee before becoming the leader of her caucus. She has no history of disclosing sensitive national security information. Barack Obama’s administration, for example, informed Republican congressional leaders ahead of the operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
The sustained booing that greeted Trump at the end of the day when he appeared at Nationals Park to watch the World Series underscored how seemingly intractable the partisan divide has become in the capital. Even after one of the greatest triumphs of his presidency, there was no rallying behind this commander in chief.
Senior administration officials sought to minimize the significance of Trump’s shoutout to Russia, emphasizing that the United States only alerted the Kremlin to protect U.S. troops. Moscow is propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Russian troops operate air defense systems in the country. The American special operations forces involved in the mission to get Baghdadi took eight helicopters through airspace controlled by the Russians in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria during the middle of the night.
“We told them, ‘We’re coming in.’ … And they said, ‘Thank you for telling us,’” Trump said. “They were very cooperative. They really were good. And we did say it would be a mission that they’d like, too. Because, you know, again, they hate ISIS as much as we do.”
“Let me just make it very clear: Russia is not an ally of the United States. The president doesn’t believe that. I don’t believe that,” national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” after Trump’s remarks at the White House. “There are times when our interests overlap with the interests of Russia. Last night, it overlapped. … When our interests overlap with Russia, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t work with them.”
Every time you don’t think relations between the White House and Congress will get worse, they seem to. “The House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top congressional leadership were notified of in advance, and on the administration’s overall strategy in the region,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Our military and allies deserve strong, smart and strategic leadership from Washington.”
There is evidence that Trump’s decision not to inform Democrats is already causing more bad blood. “His implication that Speaker Pelosi, the elected representative third in line for the presidency, cannot be trusted with sensitive information is tremendously problematic and insulting, and further politicizes foreign policy — especially when Trump has shown himself to be an untrustworthy guardian of our national security and sensitive intelligence information,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who is quarterbacking the impeachment inquiry, said he was not told in advance either. “In terms of notifying the Gang of Eight, that wasn’t done,” Schiff said on ABC’s “This Week,” referring to a select group that includes the speaker and minority leader of the House, the majority and minority leaders of Senate, and the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Schiff argued that this was “a mistake,” but he added that such notifications are “frankly, more important when things go wrong.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Vice President Pence demurred three times when pressed on whether Trump was alleging that Pelosi would have leaked details of the operation. “I don’t think that was the implication at all,” Pence said, adding that Trump’s focus was on the mission itself. Anchor Chris Wallace replied: “I understand that, but why didn’t he tell Nancy Pelosi?” Pence replied by talking about how proud he was of those involved in the operation. “We maintained the tightest possible security here,” Pence said. “We all applaud that,” Wallace answered. “I do want to ask you, though, it’s my job as a news man, sir, respectfully, why didn’t the president notify the speaker of the House?” Pence still didn’t answer.
— The operation was named after Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker who was abducted and raped repeatedly by Baghdadi before she was killed. Her parents praised Trump for his leadership and criticized Obama. “I still say Kayla should be here, and if Obama had been as decisive as President Trump, maybe she would have been,” Marsha Mueller told the Arizona Republic. “After Kayla’s death, the Muellers became outspoken critics of the American government’s handling of its foreign hostages,” per the Republic. “They had been encouraged to keep her captivity secret and discouraged from attempting to free her or pay a ransom. Carl Mueller also became a vocal supporter of Trump’s candidacy for president, speaking at his rallies on the campaign trail.”
— More details on how the mission went down, via Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe: “U.S. intelligence had tracked the militant leader, a onetime academic and veteran jihadist who spent a year in a U.S.-run prison in Iraq, to a redoubt in Syria’s Idlib province, a restive area near the border with Turkey that is home to an array of extremist groups. A critical piece of information on Baghdadi’s whereabouts came from a disaffected Islamic State militant who became an informant for the Kurds working with the Americans … The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose troops have fought alongside U.S. forces, indicated that they had provided intelligence for the operation. … A senior official from Iraq’s intelligence service … said the arrests and interrogation of people close to Baghdadi also helped yield his location, information that was provided to the Americans. …
“Officials said the military had taken DNA samples from Baghdadi’s remains and had quickly conducted visual and DNA tests to determine his identity. … Troops from Delta Force, an elite military unit, conducted the operation from a base in Iraq with support from the CIA and Kurdish forces. … The DNA material needed to identify Baghdadi was voluntarily provided by one of his daughters…”
“U.S. intelligence is tracking six Islamic State individuals in the line of succession to Baghdadi … They are dispersed, but U.S. intelligence ‘generally’ knows where they are. The hope is that intelligence gleaned from the material recovered in the raid will help U.S. forces ‘roll up … the leadership cadre’ in the coming months.”
— Looking ahead: The United States is increasingly ill-positioned to prevent a resurgence and expansion of the Islamic State despite the welcome tactical success and symbolic importance of the raid, according to a wide range of regional experts and former defense and intelligence officials. Karen DeYoung, Louisa Loveluck and Shane Harris report: “Senior administration officials hailed the operation … as evidence that the United States remains determined to eliminate the militant group. … But the raid came amid rising concern that the diminishing U.S. military and civilian footprint, along with cuts in funding for stabilization and reconstruction, undermines that commitment in a part of the world where U.S. leadership is crucial both to American and global security. …
“With the announced departure of U.S. troops in recent weeks, the administration has appeared to encourage the expansion of Turkey and Syrian government forces, along with their Russian allies, into the region. None of these actors is seen as having the ability or the will to command the international coalition that brought down the caliphate or to lead and equip the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. … In a news conference Sunday, SDF spokesman Redur Zelil said operations against the Islamic State would continue and ‘we will eliminate their sleeper cells across the region.’ But the shape of that effort remained unclear.
“In addition to monitoring the militants’ remnants across the northeast, the area’s mostly Kurdish administration is responsible for thousands of Islamic State prisoners, many of them foreigners. In a visit to one of those facilities Sunday, prison guards described for a reporter how security had deteriorated since the Turkish assault. ‘Half of our guards were transferred to the front line,’ said one, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the news media.”
— Op-ed by Brett McGurk, who served from 2015 to 2018 as the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and resigned in protest last December: “This would be the perfect time to consolidate success and act on what is likely a trove of intelligence pulled from the Baghdadi compound. Our analysts are surely poring over this information now, and it will lead to Islamic State sleeper cells and networks across Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. But our abrupt pullout from Syria will make it harder to act on this information. U.S. Special Forces have already left positions overwatching the Islamic State’s former strongholds, including Raqqa and Manbij, where major attacks into Europe were organized. These areas are now controlled by Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime, foreclosing our ability to act on targetable information. …
“Trump deserves full credit for approving the operation that led to Baghdadi’s demise,” adds McGurk, who now teaches at Stanford. “It’s a shame the information that led to the raid apparently did not come to him before the tragic decision to abruptly pull U.S. Special Forces from much of northeastern Syria. Because everything we already know about the raid reinforces just how valuable, unique and hard-fought the small and sustainable American presence there had been.”
— But Baghdadi’s death is still a major turning point, explains Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly: “No one expects his death to spell the end of the organization that at its peak controlled territory the size of Great Britain and instigated terrorist attacks across Europe, said Javed Ali, a former White House counterterrorism director. ‘In the annals of modern counterterrorism so far, what history has shown is these types of strikes do not lead to the strategic collapse or organizational defeat of a terrorism organization,’ he said. …
“Baghdadi’s one enduring achievement, the establishment of a global network of affiliates in places as diverse as Nigeria, the Philippines and India, is unlikely to be significantly affected in the short term, because those groups operate independently of the central leadership in Iraq and Syria, analysts said. But they could turn away from the movement if it fails to assert new leadership that can sustain Baghdadi’s appeal. … Baghdadi’s removal will also have little immediate effect on the way the group functions on the ground in Iraq and Syria because it had already decentralized its decision-making, said Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. … But Baghdadi’s huge ambitions, his outsize ego, and ultimately the failure of his far-reaching project to build a state across a vast swathe of Iraq and Syria make him a challenging act for any leader to follow, analysts say.”
— “According to current and former administration officials, the president has complained in recent weeks about not getting enough credit for his accomplishments. On Sunday morning, Trump sought to cast Baghdadi’s death — and his role — in historic terms,” Josh Dawsey reports. “At the news conference, Trump boasted of the quality of the footage. ‘Like you were watching a movie,’ he said. The president demurred when asked whether he could hear the whimpering from his video hookup, a relevant question because Trump has often described people as crying who said they were not. ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ he said. Later, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper was asked whether he, too, could hear ‘whimpering and crying’ during the raid. ‘I don’t have those details,’ he said.”
— David Nakamura contrasts Obama’s speech on bin Laden to Trump’s speech about Baghdadi: “For both Obama and Trump, the moments represented a measure of vindication … But if Obama’s nine-minute speech in the White House’s Cross Hall was notable for his measured tones and appeals to the enduring strength of America’s values, Trump’s 50-minute performance in the Diplomatic Reception Room was marked by the overt showmanship, blunt language and airing of personal gripes that have defined an approach he once dubbed ‘modern-day presidential.’ After an 8 1/2-minute prepared statement, Trump fielded questions from reporters for 40 more minutes, narrating his own ticktock of how the raid unfolded, delving into a remarkable level of operational detail …
“Trump couldn’t help but betray his anger at the House’s impeachment probe over his conduct on a phone call with Ukraine’s leader in the summer. Though he praised the intelligence officials involved in the Baghdadi raid, Trump noted that ‘I’ve dealt with some people that aren’t very intelligent, having to do with intel,’ an apparent reference to those who sounded alarms about the Ukraine call. He also falsely boasted that he had warned about the need to capture or kill bin Laden in a book he wrote a year before the 9/11 attacks when political leaders were ignoring the threat. In fact, Trump’s book contained no such warning, and President Bill Clinton had authorized CIA operations against the al-Qaeda leader in 1998.”
— Here’s a taste of how the news is playing elsewhere:
New York Times: “Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw American forces from northern Syria disrupted the meticulous planning and forced Pentagon officials to press ahead with a risky, night raid before their ability to control troops and spies and reconnaissance aircraft disappeared, according to military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials. Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death, they said, occurred largely in spite of Mr. Trump’s actions.”
The Sun of London: “Baghdadi’s death could trigger wave of revenge attacks in US and Europe and spark ISIS 2.0, experts warn.”
Wall Street Journal: “Death of Baghdadi Unlikely to End the Insurgency He Led.”
Financial Times: “Baghdadi death viewed as more symbolic than damaging.”