Last night, the president gave a speech to Congress. In any other presidency, that would be the extent of the news story and headline (perhaps with a tweak or two from especially right or left leaning sources). In a Trump presidency, this qualifies as earth-shattering news that dominates every outlet and Twitter feed in America for at least a full 24 hours. Much of the mainstream media, seemingly desperate to escape constant accusations of anti-Trump bias, clamored over one another after the speech’s conclusion to extol its deeply presidential tone. Right-leaning commentators called it a “slam dunk” and issued such incisive reaction statements as, “now THIS is a president the Democrats can no longer ignore.”
(I’ll leave aside for the moment the laughable implication that ANYONE has been able to ignore this president since he took office.)
But here’s the reality check: the president read a speech off a Teleprompter for about an hour and half without messing up. That’s the extent of what happened. It wasn’t masterful oratory and the speech itself wasn’t anything particularly great. (It also was riddled with the usual flurry of falsehoods and concerning nationalistic undertones.) There was one noteworthy moment, of course, when the president brought up Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL who perished last month in the Trump-ordered Yemen raid, and pointed out his widow in the audience. The two minute standing ovation and applause for Carryn Owens, and for the memory of her fallen husband, was a powerful scene. Unfortunately, the media’s extolling of Trump in this moment as mind-blowingly presidential (with a capital “P,” as one pundit exclaimed), was once again off the mark.
Let us not forget that earlier in the same day, the president blamed the military for the loss of Owens’ life – taking no personal responsibility whatsoever for the operation that was carried out under his direct authority.
Let us not forget that that reports indicate that the president’s hastily-given command – decided over dinner – was what set in motion the monumentally disastrous raid that wound up costing Owens his life. And that it still has not, as of the most recent reports, yielded any shred of significant intelligence.
Let us not forget that the president, for the first military raid ordered under his command, could not be bothered to oversee the mission in the Situation Room – choosing instead to Tweet about an upcoming television appearance while the raid was underway.
Let us not forget that Owens’ father made news headlines for questioning the raid, demanding answers, and criticizing Trump for using his son’s death as a shield against those calling for an investigation.
Let us not forget that the president aimed to clear his name of any raid-associated wrongdoing and needed desperately for public opinion to view the mission, and by extension his order of it, as a success.
Let us not forget that the president’s speech was designed to characterize the mission precisely as such: highly successful, generating “large amounts of vital intelligence.”
Let us not forget that the president followed this carefully crafted characterization with his cheap exploitation of Owens’ wife and her pain – not primarily to honor her husband’s sacrifice, but to score political points for himself.
If no one follows up on the questions surrounding Owens’ death that had emerged prior to this speech – and make no mistake, that was the intent – it would be a grave disservice to Ryan Owens and his grieving family. They deserve answers.
But yes, overall, the president succeeded in showing that he can appear quasi-presidential for a brief, prompted, carefully orchestrated period of time. Is this the metric for what makes a great president now?
I’ll wait and see what comes next. My cautious warning would be to prepare for colossal absurdities, questionable policy goals and a whole boatload of poor governance. But do keep lauding that speech – or sorry, just the fact that he read it.
“Slam dunk,” indeed.