Trump’s critics inside and outside the administration have been working hard to turn last month’s raid in Yemen, which left one SEAL and multiple Yemeni women and children dead, into a scandal. Initially the scandal was that Trump had ordered the raid over dinner, suggesting callousness and lack of preparation. In reality, the dinner was with Mattis and Joint Chiefs chairman Joseph Dunford, along with several top White House advisors. The new scandal, per NBC, is that the raid produced nothing very important intelligence-wise. But that can’t be the standard for scandal: If it is, no president in his right mind would take a risk on counterterrorism for fear of the political backlash from a gamble that didn’t pay off as hoped. If the SEALs had missed Bin Laden by 10 minutes in Abbottabad in 2011, would that have been proof that the mission was haphazard and ill-conceived?
There isn’t even uniform argument among NBC’s sources that the raid was a failure. Some say it produced nothing of value but at least one Defense official says otherwise.
Although Pentagon officials have said the raid produced “actionable intelligence,” senior officials who spoke to NBC News said they were unaware of any, even as the father of the dead SEAL questioned the premise of the raid in an interview with the Miami Herald published Sunday…
A Defense Department official also pushed back Monday afternoon, saying the raid has yielded “a significant amount” of intelligence…
On Monday, Spicer addressed the remarks of Bill Owens, whose son died.
“I can tell him that on behalf of the president, his son died a hero and the information that he was able to help obtain through that raid, as I said before, is going to save American lives,” he said. “The mission was successful in helping prevent a future attack or attacks on this nation.”
Multiple senior officials told NBC News they have not seen evidence to support that claim.
The real scandal in the making here, I guess, isn’t that the raid failed but that Spicer is supposedly lying by insisting that it was a success. I’d be curious to see Trump’s new national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, quizzed about that. McMaster’s famous in part because of his criticism of Vietnam-era military leaders for not being willing to contradict the White House’s overly rosy view of the war. If he knows it to be true that the Yemen raid provided little of real intelligence value, would he say so publicly? If he did, where would that leave Spicer?
Adding to the pressure on Trump, as noted above, is that the father of the fallen SEAL isn’t a fan (he didn’t vote for him) and doesn’t understand why the raid was ordered:
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to see him,’’ Owens recalled telling the chaplain who informed him that Trump was on his way from Washington. “I told them I don’t want to meet the President.”…
“Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why? For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen — everything was missiles and drones — because there was not a target worth one American life. Now, all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?’’…
“Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation,” said the elder Owens, pointing to Trump’s sharp words directed at the mission’s critics, including Sen. John McCain.
That seems to be the leading alternate theory among critics, that Trump put boots on the ground not because the situation truly demanded it but because he wanted to make a statement that he’d be bolder than Obama in pursuing jihadis. NBC previously reported that the chief objective of the mission was to kill or capture the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen, Qassim al-Rimi; if Trump had succeeded in catching a fish that big less than a week after his inauguration, it would have been a major score politically. Retired Adm. James Stavridis floated that theory too to NBC: “Certainly the Obama administration, particularly by the end of its 8-year run, was very cautious in moving forward with any kind of military activity. A new administration I think naturally is going to be spring-loaded to move out and demonstrate something.” The wrinkle, however, is that the raid was allegedly planned, at least in part, by … the Obama administration. Members of the administration denied that loudly after the raid went badly, but the Times reported it in the same story in which it noted Trump’s dinner with Mattis and Dunford. It may well be that Trump wanted bold action right out of the gate and saw a daring pre-planned mission as an opportunity, but the idea for the raid evidently wasn’t thrown together on the fly as some sort of pretext to give the SEALs something to do. The Pentagon had been looking at it for months, allegedly, across two administrations. Does anyone really believe Trump would have ordered the mission if Mattis or Dunford had strongly objected — or that either of them would still be serving if they believed Trump had conceived the idea for the mission recklessly, to make a political statement with the lives of U.S. troops? C’mon.
Here’s Spicer, who claimed not long ago that questioning the success of the raid was an insult to Ryan Owens’s memory, responding to Owens’s father after he questioned the success of the raid.