Last night I watched Donald Trump’s address to congress. I noticed right away that his demeanor was toned down to a more appropriate “presidential” level. Many in the media were very impressed by this. I wasn’t. It may be somewhat remarkable, given his usual disposition, but is far from impressive. He only had to stick to the script, which he mostly did, and you can train even a monkey to do tricks. One speech does not mark a presidential coming-of-age, as some may suggest.
And then the subject of the raid in Yemen came up and Trump point out Carryn Owens, the wife of fallen Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens. He said some kind things to her and made an eloquent tribute to Owens’ death. The audience gave Mrs. Owens a standing ovation and cameras focused on her tear-drenched face as she wept, overcome with emotion, for a minute and a half. Honestly, I almost cried myself. But something didn’t feel right. Amidst the raw emotion and eloquent words, something felt artificial.
Mrs. Owens’s grief was real. A grief like that never leaves, but one can hope to someday make peace with it. Trump’s use of that grief for his own political gain was the disgusting manipulation.
When Ryan Owens died on January 29th, Donald Trump called Mrs. Owens personally to offer his condolences then added, almost as an afterthought, “By the way, I’m going to be giving this speech in February. If you feel comfortable, I would love to have you as a guest.” It’s not hard to imagine Trump and his camp considering even at this point how they can spin this situation in their favor.
Later, criticism of the raid surfaced. While the White House maintained that it was a “successful” mission, people questioned how a mission involving the deaths of a US sailor, civilian non-combatants and the loss of a multi-million dollar aircraft could be categorized as a “success.” People criticized how Trump make the decision to go ahead with the raid while having dinner with his strategist Steve Bannon, who had an unremarkable stint in the Navy, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has no military or policy experience. Additionally, Trump was not present in the situation room when the raid took place.
The father of the fallen special warfare operator, Bill Owens, said publicly that he didn’t want to meet with Trump, he questioned the integrity of the decision-making process and called for an investigation. Trump unbelievably threw his military commanders under the bus when he shifted the responsibility from himself to the military leaders in charge. “They lost Ryan,” he said.
Then comes the address to congress. What better way to distract the people from Trump’s ignorance and ineptitude than to put the grieving widow on spotlight? What better way to turn an operation that he himself fucked up and took no responsibility for into a Trump-fest? Mrs. Owens cried. The audience gave her a standing ovation. Pundits praised his speech.
For Donald Trump everything is a media opportunity, even a grieving widow of a fallen sailor. It is certainly appropriate that Mrs. Owens should have been invited to some sort of private meeting with the president in honor of her dead husband. It is even arguably appropriate to bring up Ryan Owens’ death in an event such as this with wide media coverage to bring attention to his sacrifice. But the thing is, this was Trump’s address to congress, not a tribute to Ryan Owens. The purpose of this event was to present and bolster support for his policy plans. Mrs. Owens’ presence was useful to Trump. In the end, it was all about Trump.
What makes this even more insidious is that those who point out Trump’s crassness in this matter will be attacked by Trump and his press goons. They will accuse critics of being cruel to Mrs. Owens and dishonoring her husband, and who would do this to a grieving widow?
At the address to congress Mrs. Owens was given a standing ovation for a minute and a half. She deserved every second of it. But that applause was for her and her husband Chief Ryan Owens; not for Donald Trump. This time, Mr. President, it isn’t about you.