On Twitter on Monday, President Donald Trump revealed an unlikely star in the operation to kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: A Belgian shepherd whose name, according to Newsweek, is Conan.* The dog sprinted through an underground tunnel to intercept al-Baghdadi, and even suffered injuries after the ISIS leader detonated a suicide vest. As part of his showboating about the raid, Trump has reportedly invited the dog to visit the White House. The picture Trump tweeted of Conan included a caption that’s oddly reminiscent of the praise an owner might give to a dog when it’s successfully executed a command like “shake” or “lie down.”
But Trump, though born in the Chinese Zodiac’s year of the dog, has a complicated relationship with the furry creatures. As outlets like the Washington Post have pointed out, the president has consistently used the term “dog” as a dehumanizing insult his tenure in the White House. Indeed, in announcing the operation’s success, Trump said that al-Baghdadi “died like a dog” (this was before Conan’s role became a public part of the story). In 2018, he infamously tweeted, “Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog” in reference to former assistant to the president Omarosa Manigault Newman. Trump has lobbed similar “fired like a dog” and “dumped like a dog” insults at Steve Bannon, Ted Cruz, Michael Wolff, and Chuck Todd on Twitter. As the Cut noted, Trump had a long history of using the term even before he became president, calling Kristen Stewart a dog for cheating on Robert Pattinson and Mac Miller an “ungrateful dog” in a feud over one of the rapper’s songs.
Further review of Trump’s pre–White House dog insults reveals another egregious case: In 2011, New York Times columnist Gail Collins revealed that Trump had sent her a copy of one of her pieces that he didn’t like with her “picture circled and ‘The Face of a Dog!’ written over it.” He also used to be fond of the inscrutable turn of phrase “throw off like a dog” or “throw out like a dog” in television interviews, which is perhaps a muddled version of the more common expression “throw to the dogs.”
Apart from this rhetoric, Trump’s relationship with actual dogs is also fraught. A germaphobe, Trump has long resisted the idea of allowing a dog into his home. In her parenting memoir, Raising Trump, the president’s ex-wife Ivana Trump describes her travails in trying to bring along her poodle, Chappy, when she first moved in with him. After some initial resistance from her then-husband, Ivana gave him an ultimatum: “It’s me and Chappy or no one!” Trump ended up allowing Chappy to stay and didn’t object to the dog sleeping on Ivana’s side of the bed. However, it’s clear that he and the pet did not get along. “I’ve told you about Chappy and his deep love for my chinchilla coat,” Ivana writes, “He had an equal dislike of Donald. Whenever Donald went near my closet, Chappy would bark at him territorially.” However, Trump’s children apparently adored Chappy when they were young. Eric, Don Jr., and Ivanka all currently keep dogs in their homes.
Trump, however, isn’t above tapping into the widespread popularity of dogs in order to promote himself and his products. A businessman at heart, he’s long been willing to capitalize on things that he personally doesn’t like; he tried to sell a line of vodka in 2007 and established the Trump Winery in 2011 even though he’s a well-known teetotaler. The president’s 2020 campaign is currently selling a Trump-Pence Pet Leash, which Don Jr. modeled on his daughter’s dog on Instagram. His hotels have also attempted to appeal to dog owners. In 2011, Trump’s Las Vegas hotel began offering in-suite Paws Massages from spa masseuses. Misty Marley, the dog that played the titular role in the 2008 film Marley & Me, was one of the first to try out the service and enjoyed a bottle of Trump Las Vegas water afterward.
Trump also featured multiple canine-themed challenges on The Apprentice. One episode had the contestants run rival dog motels, and another had them create a campaign for homeless dogs. Trump said of the latter challenge, “I firmly believe that everyone deserves a second chance, and these dogs are no exception.”
And yet, still, he’s the first president since 1901 to not keep a dog in the White House. During a February rally in El Paso, Texas, he explained: “I don’t have any time. How would I look walking a dog on the White House lawn?”
We actually do know what Trump looks like walking a dog. An archived clip from the Today Show on Sept. 24, 2010, shows Trump trotting out and stiffly petting a dog named Sable. He claims to not have a dog when asked by Matt Lauer, noting, “Too tough to walk,” but suggests, “I may take Sable. I like Sable. Sable’s looking good to me.”
It’s fair to assume that he did not, in fact, take Sable home.
Correction, Oct. 30, 2019: An earlier version of this article misidentified Conan as both a Belgian shepherd and a Belgian sheepdog. In America, the Belgian sheepdog is actually classified as a specific type of Belgian shepherd. Conan, reportedly a Belgian Malinois, is classified as a Belgian shepherd.