With Baghdadi raid, Trump makes the made-for-TV announcement he has long wanted

US President Donald Trump, US Vice President Mike Pence (second from left), US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (third from right), along with members of the national security team, watch as US Special Operations forces close in on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, on Oct 26, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - From the moment US President Donald Trump learned that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, had been killed in a commando raid in Syria, he handled the news in an unusual way.

"Something very big just happened!" Trump teased on Twitter on Saturday (Oct 26) night around 9.30pm Eastern time, just hours after US forces had landed in the region.

An hour or so later, after convincing Trump that waiting until the morning to elaborate on his cryptic Twitter message was a better way to steer the news that would dominate Sunday talk shows, the president's aides announced a rare, Sunday morning presidential address from the White House.

The Diplomatic Reception Room setting gave Trump the kind of made-for-television presidential moment he has long craved - a parallel to President Barack Obama's late-night announcement in 2011 that Osama bin Laden had been killed - at a time when he has been eager for a storyline outside of impeachment and a way to counter the narrative that he had been outmaneuvered by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in ordering US troops out of Syria.

He spoke for 48 minutes, first reading a statement and then answering questions from reporters in a rambling news conference.

He described the raid that killed al-Baghdadi in graphic terms and belittled the ISIS leader as having "died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way", and that he "died like a dog", one of Trump's favourite invectives.

Al-Baghdadi's ISIS followers, the president said, were "frightened puppies" and "losers," the same language he has used to describe former political rivals like Sen. Ted Cruz and media outlets like CNN.

And the president appeared to elevate the significance of the raid over the one in which bin Laden was killed eight years ago - an event that unfolded the same night that Obama ruthlessly mocked Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

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"Al-Baghdadi everybody hears about, because he's built this monster for a long time," Trump said. "But nobody ever heard of Osama bin Laden until really the World Trade Center."

White House aides viewed the success of the raid as a major political victory for Trump at a tenuous juncture in his presidency. And for the president, it had the potential to overshadow one of Obama's legacies and earn Trump the kind of plaudits he believes are unfairly reserved for other presidents.

Trump was returning from his golf course in Sterling, Virginia, where he had played with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and David Perdue, R-Ga., as well as Rob Manfred, the Major League Baseball commissioner, Saturday afternoon, as the raid in Syria began.

After returning to the White House at around 4.15pm, Trump changed and went to the Situation Room, where he was joined by Vice-President Mike Pence; Robert O'Brien, his national security adviser; Defence Secretary Mark Esper; and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, to witness the raid unfold.

Reports of military action in Syria began circulating on social media, prompting the president to make the first official public acknowledgment on Twitter that "something big" was unfolding.

By that time, Trump was back in the East Wing with a handful of aides who convinced him to wait until the morning for a fuller explanation of what had taken place.

He decided against notifying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders Saturday night, Trump said at his news conference Sunday, because "Washington leaks like I've never seen before" and he did not want the information to get out. "There's no country in the world that leaks like we do."

On Sunday morning, Trump invited Graham back to the White House to attend his announcement, which was delayed by about 30 minutes because he was still working on his remarks with Stephen Miller and his other speechwriters.

Trump, who has long resisted efforts from aides to address the nation from the Oval Office, agreed to the Diplomatic Reception Room as the setting for what he wanted to be a legacy-defining moment. And, there, he continued to underscore his competition with Obama by speaking at length about what he said were his own premonitions about bin Laden, rather than focusing on the events of the day.

He also repeated the misleading claim that he delivered a warning about bin Laden in one of his books. "Nobody listened to me," Trump lamented. "To this day, I get people coming up to me, and they said, 'You know, one of the most amazing things I've seen about you is that you predicted that Osama bin Laden had to be killed before he knocked down the World Trade Center.'" In reality, Trump's book, "The America We Deserve," makes one passing reference to bin Laden, where he is simply referred to as "public enemy No. 1."

But Sunday morning, Trump took credit not only for the raid that killed al-Baghdadi, but also for having been wiser than his predecessors. "I made a prediction," he said. "Let's put it this way. If they would have listened to me, a lot of things would have been different."

From his implicit undermining of Obama to his focus on the fact that he has never received the credit he deserves, Trump handled the moment in a familiar way: putting himself at the center of the action, releasing information such as the number of helicopters involved in the operation that are normally classified, and focusing on vivid, cinematic details of a raid he bragged unfolded "as though you were watching a movie." All presidents make military victories their own, but for Trump, that movie was a lot about him.

Recalling the scene on Saturday in the Situation Room, he claimed to have watched the raid from an "absolutely perfect" view of the skirmish and appeared to relish the details.

"They blasted their way in so quickly, it was incredible," Trump said. "When he blew himself up, the tunnel collapsed on top of him, on top of everything - and his children. I mean, so he led his three children to death," he said of al-Baghdadi. Trump added that the body of the ISIS leader "was mutilated by the blast."

A photograph released by the White House showed Trump in the Situation Room on Saturday, surrounded by his top aides, monitoring developments.

The photo, showing six stone-faced men staring into the camera, appeared to be Trump's answer to the photograph of Obama and his team receiving live updates about the operation to kill bin Laden.

But Trump's breathless language stood in contrast to the stark version of events that Obama relayed to the public after the secret raid that killed bin Laden.

"A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability," Obama said, addressing the nation in 2011. "No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body." After reading his statement, Obama turned around and left the podium, taking no questions.

Trump ended his news conference after defending his decision to pull US troops out of Syria and criticising President George W. Bush's decision to send troops to Iraq.

"He was a gutless animal," Trump said in closing of al-Baghdadi. "Thank you all very much. I appreciate it. Very great day for our country."

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