President Trump, currently in a spat with the retired Navy SEAL who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, has doubled down on an assertion that he had known the al-Qaida leader would orchestrate a 9/11-style attack and that the military had bungled the search for bin Laden, appearing to call the Clinton- and Obama-era intelligence establishment “fools” in a Monday morning tweet.
In an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Trump put forth a number of falsehoods about the background to the raid that killed Bin Laden and lashed out against retired Adm. Bill McRaven, the SEAL who led the raid, calling him a “Clinton fan” and “Obama backer,” in response to McRaven’s criticism.
McRaven had first criticized Trump last year after the president called news media “the enemy of the people.” Then, in the summer, when Trump revoked former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance, McRaven wrote in the Washington Post that the president had “embarrassed” and “humiliated” the country. “Therefore, I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency,” he wrote.
When Wallace, seeking comment from Trump about his recent decision to revoke Jim Acosta’s press pass, tried to cite the retired admiral’s comments, Trump repeatedly cut Wallace off to dismiss McRaven as aligned with Obama and Clinton. (“I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else,” McRaven later told CNN. “I am a fan of President Obama and President George W. Bush, both of whom I worked for.”) When Wallace replied that McRaven had been a SEAL for 37 years, Trump cut him off again:
Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama Bin Laden a lot sooner than that, wouldn’t it have been nice? You know, living—think of this—living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan, in what I guess they considered a nice mansion—I don’t know, I’ve seen nicer. But living in Pakistan right next to the military academy, everybody in Pakistan knew he was there. And we give Pakistan $1.3 billion a year and they don’t tell him, they don’t tell him—
Wallace then asked, “You’re not even going to give them credit for taking down Bin Laden?” But Trump moved on to discuss financial assistance to Pakistan—a topic he would return to in his tweets on Monday morning.
Trump’s assertions here are false, as Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and the author of a book about the search for Bin Laden, wrote. “When I was researching a book about the hunt for bin Laden, I spoke to dozens of key government, intelligence and military officials involved in the bin Laden operation and they all said that the Pakistanis had no clue that al Qaeda’s leader was living in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan where he was found,” Bergen wrote. “The fact is that finding bin Laden took a decade after the 9/11 attacks because he wasn’t using any form of electronic communication and relied instead on handheld messages delivered by his trusted courier. As a result, even senior leaders of al Qaeda didn’t know where bin Laden was hiding.”
After Trump’s comments, many rallied to defend McRaven, including George P. Bush, the only Bush family member to publicly support Trump.
Trump may have still been feeling defensive after the backlash following his Sunday appearance, as he tweeted again about the matter on Monday morning:
Here, he returns to a falsehood he has promoted several times, implying, as he has said in the past, that he “predicted” Osama Bin Laden would attack. This falsehood is based on a passage from his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” in which there is a single reference to Bin Laden as an example:
Instead of one looming crisis hanging over us, we face a bewildering series of smaller crises, flash points, standoffs, and hot spots. We’re not playing the chess game to end all chess games anymore. We’re playing tournament chess — one master against many rivals. … One day we’re told that a shadowy figure with no fixed address named Osama bin-Laden is public enemy number one, and U.S. jetfighters lay waste to his camp in Afghanistan. He escapes back under some rock, and a few news cycles later it’s on to a new enemy and new crisis.
Bin Laden was not an unknown figure at the time. But in the book, Trump makes a separate observation about terrorism that he has, years later, combined with the reference to Bin Laden to imply he had predicted Bin Laden would lead a terror attack on the U.S.:
I really am convinced we’re in danger of the sort of terrorist attacks that will make the bombing of the Trade Center look like kids playing with firecrackers. No sensible analyst rejects this possibility, and plenty of them, like me, are not wondering if but when it will happen.
This point, too, was not original at the time. As the Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler noted, even if Trump had made a prediction about Bin Laden orchestrating a terror attacks in the book, it would have “been echoing predictions of experts, news organizations and even bin Laden himself.” But the reality is he never “predicted terrorism” or “predicted bin Laden.”
Trump’s comments directed toward the intelligence establishment and the military came a week after another military-related controversy in which he neglected to visit Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day, as presidents traditionally do. He later said that he “should have” gone but that he had been busy making phone calls.
On a related topic, Wallace pointed out during Sunday’s interview that Trump has not visited troops in Iraq or Afghanistan since he started his presidency. Trump then said he had opposed the war in Iraq. “But this is about the soldiers, sir,” Wallace responded.
“You’re right,” Trump said. “I’ve had an unbelievable busy schedule and I will be doing it. On top of which you have these phony witch hunts. On top of which—I mean, we’ve just been very busy.”