Donald Trump address to US Congress: Invoking slain Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was in poor taste

President Donald Trump devoted a significant chunk of time in his first address to the US Congress, to the topic of the American armed forces.

Pledging to provide "the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war and — if they must — to fight and to win," Trump spoke of how he was going to call for one of the largest defence spending increases in US history and that section of this would go towards the welfare of veterans.

But it's that 'if they must' part that is likely to come back and haunt Trump in the days to come.

He went on to add that:

"The challenges we face as a nation are great. But our people are even greater. And none are greater or braver than those who fight for America in uniform. We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a US Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William "Ryan" Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero — battling against terrorism and securing our nation. I just spoke to General (James) Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, 'Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.' Ryan's legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one's life for one's friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom — we will never forget him. To those allies who wonder what kind of friend America will be, look no further than the heroes who wear our uniform."

There's nothing wrong per se with what Trump said. In fact, Ryan's widow Carryn was visibly moved.

Carryn Owens, widow of widow of Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, wipes her eyes on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. AP

Carryn Owens, widow of widow of Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, wipes her eyes on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. AP

Ryan received a long standing ovation, prompting Trump to comment lightheartedly that "he's very happy because I think he just broke a record".

Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery wasn't alone. Even Politico's Eric Geller shared the sentiment:

A quick recap is in order.

On 26 or 27 January and a week into Trump's presidency, he authorised a 'site exploitation mission' by a Navy SEAL team on an Al-Qaeda compound in Yemen. It was during this raid — ostensibly organised to collect information about the outfit's plans — by an eight-member SEAL team that Ryan was wounded. As The Washington Post pointed out, "Fourteen militants were killed, as were Ryan and numerous civilians. The dead included the eight-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born cleric who joined Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and was later killed in a 2011 US drone strike."

The White House then put out a statement by the president condoling Ryan's death and stating "that (the) life of a heroic service member has been taken in our fight against the evil of radical Islamic terrorism". The 'successful' raid, as the statement noted, helped in "capturing important intelligence" that would be used to aid counter-terrorism efforts in the US and across the globe.

And it's around this point that cracks began to appear in the story.

While on one hand US officials told NBC News that the raid had produced no significant intelligence (what was found included a 10-year-old video), on the other, Ryan's father Bill Owens (among others including Senator John McCain) are openly calling the operation into question. Bill asked Miami Herald, “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?’’

This is where that 'if they must' part to which this piece had alluded at the very start, comes into sharp focus.

Trump, on his part, attempted to deflect the blame from his administration and himself by claiming that the operation was planned during the Barack Obama administration, and that it was something the generals had been planning for a "long time". He told Fox News, "This was something that was, you know, just — they (the generals) wanted to do... And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected." Sure enough, it's been reported that the Obama administration had indeed considered the operation for several weeks, but agreed that its execution would not have been possible before 20 January — the day Trump took oath. And so, the the proposal was passed along to the Pentagon for the Trump administration to consider.

That said, for a commander-in-chief to blame his generals (whose support Trump had bragged about throughout the campaign) for wanting to execute the raid is one thing, but claiming, "And they lost Ryan" is quite another.

While Bill has refused to even meet with Trump — his conscience, he said, would not allow him to do so, he has demanded an investigation into the raid, something he rightly or wrongly believes the government "owes" his son. He also cautioned the president, "Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation". Now, the military is believed to be conducting three separate reviews of the raid that also saw the crash-landing and destruction of a $90-million (stated as being worth $70 million in some reports) MV-22 Osprey helicopter.

Amidst all of this, to play on the emotions of a widow — all the applause notwithstanding — felt like a bit of a bum note in an otherwise near-pitch perfect speech. Perhaps in the days to come, Trump will realise it would have been advisable for him to speak about Ryan after the investigations were complete, after he had sought to address Bill's concerns and after he had accepted responsibility for the Navy SEAL's death.

Perhaps also, knowing just how Ryan's father feels about the whole thing, Trump will rethink his statement that Ryan would be "very happy because... he just broke a record".

Updated Date: Mar 01, 2017 13:41 PM

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