What Trump's spurious claim about fallen troops suggests about his future military decisions
When President Trump considers sending in the troops, does he think of them or himself?
If you woke up Monday asking, "What utterly classless thing will the president of the United States do today?" it took all the way until the afternoon for you to get your answer.
Asked at a press conference why he had said nothing publicly about the four American soldiers who were killed in Niger two weeks ago, President Trump took it for some reason as a question about him calling the family members of those soldiers, and told a truly revolting lie about his predecessors and how they treated the families of the fallen. "If you look at President Obama and other presidents," he said, "most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls." Asked later in the press conference how he could make such an obviously false claim, he backtracked a bit, saying, "President Obama I think probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told." In other words, he had no idea what he was talking about, but decided to smear Obama and other presidents in order to make the insane claim that only he displays the proper caring and concern for Gold Star families.
That Trump is a liar, we know. That he is obsessed with comparing himself to Barack Obama — a man possessed of many of the virtues Trump so obviously lacks — we also know. But this may give us some hints about what may or may not be going through Trump's mind when he is faced with a decision about sending American service members into situations where they might be killed.
That decision can involve a somewhat cold calculation, an assessment of potential gains and losses from an operation and whether one will outweigh the other. There are no perfect answers when making that calculation — how do you measure the lives of your soldiers? Is some outcome to a raid or joining a larger conflict in a foreign country worth one American life but not 10, or 100 but not 1,000?
Precisely because those questions are so difficult to answer, we need presidents who can carry to the decision as many cognitive tools as possible. They should be able to grasp the situation fully, anticipate the future, and appreciate the possibilities for unintended consequences. They have to bring every ounce of their empathy to bear, so that the lives they're risking are not abstractions and not a means for the president's own aggrandizement. That's what the president owes those who volunteer to obey his orders, knowing that those orders could get them killed.
A president with empathy says, "If this goes wrong, I'm going to have to look a mother and father in the eye and tell them why I sent their child to die" — and envisions that encounter through the lens of their pain, not his own discomfort. That's what it means to have empathy, something Trump has shown that he completely lacks.
Perhaps no president in our history has talked so blithely about using military force — he promised that North Korean threats would "be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen" — yet he seemingly wants nothing to do with the responsibility that comes with the decisions he makes to send those in the military into harm's way. When asked about a counterterrorism mission in Yemen early in his term in which a Navy SEAL died, he said, "This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do," referring to his military advisers. "And they lost Ryan." To hear him talk, you'd think somebody else approved the mission without him even knowing about it.
Less than a year into his presidency, we don't know for sure that in a crisis Trump will be too ready to send members of the military into dangerous situations, too unconcerned about the prospects for casualties. After all, George W. Bush was extremely good at comforting people; after Trump's statement about previous presidents not calling families, one woman said on Twitter, "When my brother was killed, Pres Bush listened while I screamed at him & then held me as I sobbed, you fat f---ing liar." Yet Bush still sent thousands of American service members to their deaths in pursuit of an insane vision that the Middle East would be transformed into a paradise of peace and prosperity once we removed Saddam Hussein from power.
We don't have to wonder how Trump would react to a Gold Star family that failed to praise him; Google "Khizr and Ghazala Khan" if you've already forgotten. That episode from 2016 showed that when it comes to parents who have made that sacrifice and endured that pain, Trump as always sees the situation only through the frame of his own fragile ego. Which means that when considering the possibility of American deaths, he may well ask nothing more than, "If they die, will it make me look bad?"
It's possible that the fear of damage to his own image could restrain Trump from military adventurism where others would be more gung-ho to send in the troops. But it's also possible that if he becomes convinced that there's some glorious victory for Donald Trump in the offing, he won't much care how many lives are lost.
We don't know which is more likely, but we're going to find out — and it's hard to feel optimistic.