When Propaganda Turns “Presidential”

Last Tuesday, Donald Trump gave a joint address to Congress to discuss his progress so far as president and his plans going forward. Most of the mainstream media reacted quite positively to the speech, deeming Trump “presidential,” and saying his speech was even “inspirational.”

But, for me, there was only one story that mattered in the wake of the address: Donald Trump exploited the death of a Navy Seal, and the media rewarded him for it.

By far, the most memorable moment of the night was when Trump honored the grieving widow of a U.S. Navy Seal named Ryan Owens, who was killed in a military raid of an al-Qaeda hideout in Yemen last month.

Pundits lauded Trump for this tender moment. To them, it was the show-stopper, the most human thing Trump has even done. It was “soaring.” Even liberal commentator Van Jones agreed: “He became President of the United States in that moment. Period.”

But to understand why this is a bad assessment, we need some context.

On January 25, Trump was presented with the proposal for the Yemen raid while eating dinner with his inner circle. The plan was conceived under Obama’s administration, but was never authorized. It was described beforehand as “rare” and “risky,” and was presented as huge gamble for the administration. Officials understood that it “posed an elevated risk to U.S. forces.” By the end of his dinner, the President had green-lighted the mission.

Trump claimed the raid was a huge success and that it “generated large amounts of vital intelligence.” But, according to the New York Times, everything that could go wrong, did.”

The Times continued, “The death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens came after a chain of mishaps and misjudgments that plunged the elite commandos into a ferocious 50-minute firefight that also left three others wounded and a $75 million aircraft deliberately destroyed.” In addition, as many as 30 civilians were killed in the crossfire and officials believe at least 10 of those were women and children, possibly including an 8-year-old American girl.

The widow of Mr. Owens deserved the moment the president gave her – her husband gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country and he will go down as an American hero, as he should. But it’s important to point out who wasn’t there for Owens’s standing ovation: his father.

Bill Owens, the father of Ryan, refused to meet with Trump last week when the president wanted to give his condolences.

‘‘I told them I didn’t want to make a scene about it, but my conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him,’’ Owens told The 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?’’ He went on to demand an investigation into his son’s death and the mission at large.

The evidence is there that this mission was not as big a “success” as Trump said it was. So let’s be clear: Trump honored Owens’s widow to score political points. He used her as a propaganda piece to distract us from the fact that Owen’s death should not have happened, and those in the media took the bait. Pundits should have been blunt about Trump’s use of a grieving widow as a prop to overshadow an avoidable death.

The media praised Trump’s speech because it wasn’t the usual chauvinistic demagoguery we’re used to; implying that somehow meeting the criteria to appear “presidential” is an excuse to overlook failure and misinformation. In one speech, he politicized a Navy Seal’s death, lied 51 times and declared he was creating a registry to track crimes committed by illegal immigrants – similar to the one Hitler kept for crimes committed by Jews. His speech was certainly a “pivot,” as most pundits said it was. But it wasn’t a pivot from an unruly Trump to a more temperate one. The media itself pivoted away from the claim that “Democracy Dies in Darkness” and towards the status quo.

When the bar for good behavior is as low as it is for our president, it’s easy to give out praise for merely exceeding poor expectations. But that doesn’t excuse a majority of pundits and reporters for getting distracted by an hour of adult behavior. Those in the media have to be more vigilant if they ever want to truly hold the president accountable for his actions and decisions.

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