The suicide of the Islamic State leader as US troops raided his hideout will offer Donald Trump only a brief respite from an investigation led by Democrats, says Steve Holland.
For US president Donald Trump, the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a signature achievement that may quell growing criticism from his own ranks, but it is unlikely to offer relief from Democratic-led scrutiny of his dealings with Ukraine.
The raid could not have come at a better time for Trump, who is facing an impeachment investigation by Democrats in the US House of Representatives. They say his attempt to persuade Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden was an abuse of power and may have put national security at risk.
He has also come under withering criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for an abrupt decision to pull US troops out of north-eastern Syria. That cleared the way for a Turkish invasion against America’s Kurdish allies in the area.
“I don’t think it alters the trajectory of our politics in any way, necessarily, but, without question, for the president it’s a huge win. There’s no other way to spin it,” said Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution scholar, who advised Republican Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016 and Mitt Romney’s in 2012.
Trump, who is up for re-election in November 2020, will be able to trumpet the killing as another reason why he should not be thrown out of office, inaddition to his tough stance on illegal immigration and his record on the economy.
He could not help but tease the win in typically grandiose fashion.
“Something very big has just happened!” he tweeted on Saturday, only minutes after US special forces had safely landed back at their base.
Aware of the political capital suddenly at his disposal, Trump delivered the news on Sunday, from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, standing before battle flags that had been brought from the Oval Office for the occasion.
Trump offered vivid and sometimes grisly details about the raid and thedemise of Baghdadi, which he claimed was “bigger” than the 2011 US killing of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Addressing the nation from the White House, Trump claimed Baghdadi died “whimpering and crying”.
As US forces bore down on al-Baghdadi, he fled into a “dead-end” tunnel with three of his children, Trump said, and detonated a suicide vest.
“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” he said. “He died like a dog; he died like a coward.”
Trump vividly described the raid and took questions from reporters for 45 minutes.
US forces breached the walls because the doors were booby-trapped and they chased al-Baghdadi into the tunnel, which partially collapsed after hedetonated the suicide vest.
Trump said a military dog was hurt by the blast.
He also revealed that US forces spent roughly two hours on the ground, collecting intelligence.
Trump said he watched the operation from the White House Situation Room, as it played out live, “as though you were watching a movie.”
He suggested that he may order the release of the video, so that the world knows al-Baghdadi did not die a hero and spent his final moments “crying”, “whimpering”, and “screaming”.
Trump later repeated a false claim that, before the attacks of September 11, 2001, he had predicted the threat posed by bin Laden.
He said the death of al-Baghdadi shows the US will continue pursuing other terrorist leaders and that none should rest easy.
“These savage monsters will not escape their fate,” he said, and said the “losers” who worked for al-Baghdadi had “no idea what they were getting into”.
Afterwards, the White House deployed top national security aides to the Sunday talk shows to discuss the raid and its importance for national security.
The news prompted praise from senior Republicans, including those, such as Trump ally and senator Lindsey Graham, who had criticised the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria.
“This is a game-changer,” Graham told reporters during a second briefing at the White House.
Senate majority leader and Republican Mitch McConnell, who also condemned the Syria troop withdrawal, said on Sunday he applauded the news and was grateful “to President Trump, and his team, for their leadership”.
Even Mitt Romney, Trump’s fiercest Republican critic, took to Twitter to thank him for sending Baghdadi to “hell”.
The good news brought only a brief truce with Democrats, who hope to beat Trump in 2020, if they cannot remove him from office via impeachment.
Several senior Democrats, including Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, and Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, congratulated Trump.
But many were quick to point out that Baghdadi’s death did not end Islamic State and that Trump had no strategy for the region. They also called him out for breaking with tradition by failing to brief the full ‘Gang of Eight’ Congressional leaders ahead of the raid.
Trump pointedly said on Sunday that he did not tell House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, his chief Democratic rival, who has played a leading role in the impeachment drama, about the plan,because of concerns the information would leak and put American soldiers at risk.
“The House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians, but not top congressional leadership, were notified of in advance, and on the administration’s overall strategy in the region,” Pelosi said in a statement, in which she praised the armed forces.
The take down of Baghdadi is unlikely to distract lawmakers from the impeachment probe. It has gained momentum, following a number of damaging witness testimonies, which Republicans increasingly struggle to rebut.
Speaking to reporters, following a top US diplomat’s closed-door testimony on Wednesday, John Thune, the Senate’s No 2 Republican, said the picture emerging from the investigation was “not a good one”, a possible sign that Republican support for Trump might be faltering.
“In years past, you could see how this would pause the political rhetoric forat least a few days,” said Chen. “I don’t see that happening this time.”