If you stuck with President Donald Trump to the end of his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, you would have been treated to a patriotic display that much of the media felt was guaranteed to warm your heart. For two minutes and 11 seconds, Trump exhorted the audience in Congress—and at home—to stand for Carryn Owens, the wife of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed during a disastrous counterterrorism raid in Yemen ordered by Trump just days after his inauguration.
Words cannot convey my compassion and sympathy for Owens and her family. And yet, at the same time, I can barely contain my anger and disgust at the way that Trump put her on display, seeking to appropriate her grief—and her deceased husband’s heroism—for his political gain. This was stolen valor on a presidential scale. And to make matters worse, it fits into a broader pattern of integrity theft by Trump, wherein he’s sought during his first weeks in office to attack or corrupt the integrity of the CIA, the military, and the Department of Homeland Security.
Owens served with the best of the best: Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite counterterrorism force created in the early 1980s that stands above and apart from other SEAL teams (let alone conventional military units). Trump ordered Owens’ unit to conduct a raid in Yemen one week after taking office; the raid had been previously deferred as too risky by the Obama administration. On the ground in Yemen, Owens died during the first few minutes of the operation, which appears to have gone wrong for a multitude of reasons. The raid’s intelligence and strategic value is now being hotly debated, along with broader questions about our national objectives and operations in Yemen.
The president’s critics are not the only ones with doubts about this mission. On Feb. 1, a U.S. Air Force jet brought Owens’ body home by way of Dover Air Force Base. There, upon being told that President Trump would be attending the arrival ceremony, Owens’ father told a military chaplain, “I don’t want to see him.” The elder Owens later explained that “[m]y conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him” due to how Trump lashed out at a Gold Star family during his presidential campaign, and because of reports about Trump’s ineptitude in ordering the raid that cost the younger Owens his life. “Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration?” Owens asked. “Why?”
Why indeed. Since the raid, the White House has steadfastly insisted on its success and refused to answer Owens’ questions, or those of others questioning the wisdom of the risky venture. Indeed, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that “anyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.” And in the last week, the White House has insisted the raid captured items of importance intelligence value—despite statements from anonymous Pentagon officials throwing shade on the intelligence actually gathered on the ground. (Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have each bucked these claims by citing Secretary of Defense James Mattis as having said the mission yielded “significant intelligence.”)
Presidents since Reagan have used their guest lists at such speeches to recognize extraordinary Americans. The Owens family deserves every bit of this recognition and more from a grateful nation. However, this instance stood out for its opportunism and inappropriateness. Despite the raw emotions of this moment, the Trump White House saw fit to invite Carryn Owens to the president’s joint address to Congress and parade her before the world.
Unlike with other guests who were publicized in advance, the Trump political machine also seems to have concealed her attendance until just before the speech. Although White House aides say they kept Owens’ identity a secret to protect her from the media spotlight, it’s equally plausible that White House operatives wanted to create a moment of presidential drama—not unlike the big reveal at the end of an episode of Celebrity Apprentice.
That Trump used this reality show moment to co-opt Owens’ heroism after so recklessly ordering the raid that cost him his life—and has since evaded responsibility for that raid—added insult to injury. There stood the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, the most powerful man on the planet, having attempted within the past 24 hours to avoid responsibility for the things he could (and did) control while seeking to claim laurels for acts of valor he had no claim to. It was disgraceful.
As a former Army officer, the extended ovation rankled me for other reasons too. Trump’s salute was not presidential; it was the preening of a peacock, a martinet whose very language clashes with the unselfish country-first ethos of the service. As James Fallows points out, Trump’s public tribute also smacked of so many hollow “thank you for your service” spectacles. The intent or emotion behind these events may be sincere, but they can only be viewed against the backdrop of the American civil-military divide. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform; fewer still have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other theaters of war. The show thank-yous are surely better than the alternative, which met previous generations of veterans, but they also enable American society to avoid the truly hard questions about war.
It’s also impossible to excuse Trump for this spectacle given his own shameful history with respect to military service. Trump aggressively evaded service during the Vietnam War and then insultingly compared his dating experiences in New York City to combat. As a philanthropist, Trump largely ignored veterans causes and even avoided paying them during his campaign—until Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold hounded him into keeping his pledges. During his presidential campaign, Trump insulted prisoners of war, Gold Star families, Purple Heart recipients, and America’s generals. If ever there was a person who should act humbly around the military, it is Donald Trump.
If this were a one-time event, we might write it off to an inexperienced White House staff. However, Trump’s appropriation of the Owens family fits into a broader pattern of disrespect towards military symbols and institutional integrity. On his first full day in office, Trump used the CIA lobby to give a speech attacking the press, enlisting the CIA’s Memorial Wall and institutional integrity in his assault on press freedom. When Trump signed his immigration order in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, flanked by Medal of Honor citations and stories, he sought to leverage the military’s history of valor for his political agenda. Trump continued this pattern during his overtly political visit to the military headquarters of Central Command and Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, where he suggested that he was elected with the support of the troops in the audience. And this, of course, comes on top of his continuous verbal assault on the FBI and intelligence community at large for its stream of reports regarding Trump’s Russia ties and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.
Each of these events demonstrates Trump’s disrespect for the federal government’s institutional integrity, particularly those who serve in its most dangerous roles. That should come as no surprise, given chief strategist Steve Bannon’s pledge to pursue “deconstruction of the administrative state” as the central theme of the Trump agenda. However, Trump’s attack on the integrity of the national security state may be more insidious still because of the stakes. When Trump attacks or corrupts the CIA, he corrodes our trust in those agencies. Americans’ lives depend on this trust, and the faith that we place in their conclusions about threats facing America, and their recommended responses to those threats.
Now that he is commander in chief, Trump’s decisions mean life or death for the men and women under his command. Our troops and their families are not political props, nor are they extras on a reality TV show. They deserve better.