When President Donald Trump told the nation on Sunday morning about the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he claimed the leader of the self-described Islamic State had died “like a dog” and a “coward” during a U.S. military operation in Syria — “whimpering and crying and screaming” as he fled into a tunnel before blowing himself up.
But top administration officials have questioned where Trump, who watched the operation unfold from the Situation Room, got those details of Baghdadi’s final moments. The livestream the president had been watching did not have audio and showed only overhead surveillance footage, The New York Times reported, citing military and intelligence officials.
“Those surveillance feeds could not show what was happening in an underground tunnel, much less detect if [Baghdadi] was whimpering or crying,” the Times said.
At least five current senior administration officials expressed bafflement at Trump’s “whimpering” remark, The Daily Beast reported Monday.
“Two officials recounted how after they heard [Trump’s announcement] on Sunday, they immediately began messaging each other questions and comments like, ‘uh where is he getting that?’” the news outlet said.
The Pentagon has also distanced itself from the president’s comments.
Asked on Sunday whether Baghdadi had indeed been whimpering and crying in the moments before his death, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “I don’t have those details.”
The following day, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he also didn’t have the same information as Trump but suggested the president may have gotten his information from military personnel on the ground.
“I know the president had planned to talk down to the unit and unit members,” Milley told reporters. “But I don’t know what the source of that was. I assume it was talking directly to unit and unit members.”
But two senior officials told the Daily Beast that, although Trump “could have spoken to commandos on the ground who carried out the raid ... that has not often been the case in past operations.”
Baghdadi’s death is a major blow to ISIS and has been welcomed internationally as a victory against terrorism. It will also undoubtedly be remembered as one of the signature achievements of Trump’s presidency.
Trump, however, has come under scrutiny for his description of the operation that led to Baghdadi’s downfall. Other than his remarks regarding Baghdadi’s final moments, the president has also been scrutinized for his apparent downplaying of the role that allies, including Iraq and Syrian Kurds, played in the successful mission.
Though Trump thanked Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Syrian Kurds for their help in taking down the extremist leader, he insisted the U.S. “got very little help” overall.
“We had our own intel,” he said Sunday. “We got very little help. We didn’t need much help.”