Just after 3:30 p.m. ET, on Thursday, President Donald Trump appeared in the Rose Garden to announce the U.S. would formally withdraw from the Paris climate accords. But, before he got to that, Trump spoke about an ongoing story out of the Philippines.
“I would like to begin by addressing the terrorist attack in Manila,” Trump said. “We’re closely monitoring the situation, and I will continue to give updates if anything happens during this period of time. But it is really very sad as to what’s going on throughout the world with terror.”
“Terror attack.” “Terror.” Strong words from a president of the United States.
And, at least based on what we know now, not correct.
Philippine authorities have insisted since the start that the rampage at Resorts World Manila, which left 37 people dead, was the work of a single gunman and was not at all related to terrorism.
Hours after Trump called it a “terror attack,” ISIS claimed responsibility in a statement that insisted “Islamic State fighters ” had carried out the killings. But that claim of responsibility didn’t seem to gibe with the facts (a lone gunmen) or the repeated assertions by Manila police that the incident had nothing to do with terror.
“They can always claim whatever they want to claim,” Oscar Albayalde, police chief for the Manila area, told CNN. “They have this reputation of claiming all atrocities all over the world to perpetuate themselves to gain global notoriety. There is no truth that the incident is a terror act.”
All of which leaves me with a question: Why did Trump conclusively say that the Manila incident was terror on Thursday afternoon even though ISIS didn’t claim credit for it until Thursday night and the Manila police continued to insist today that this was simply not a terror attack?
Did Trump know something we didn’t? Or the Manila police still don’t?
According to the White House, national security adviser H.R. McMaster had briefed Trump on the situation before he arrived in the Rose Garden. “The president had been briefed that media reports indicated ISIS had taken credit,” a White House official told CNN.
What media reports? Where? And, why did Trump feel comfortable calling it a “terror attack” if that conclusion was solely based on unspecified media reports?
Republicans will, rightly, note that Trump’s wouldn’t be the first administration to incorrectly describe an attack on foreign soil. In the immediate aftermath of the attack against a US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012, UN Ambassador Susan Rice claimed repeatedly that the attack had been a spontaneous event driven by a controversial video. The after-action report made clear it had been a planned attack and that many of the attackers had links to Al-Quaeda.
But two wrongs on this sort of stuff doesn’t make a right. In fact, given the massive firestorm the Obama Administration’s handling of Benghazi created, it’s incumbent on all future presidents (and their staffs) to be very clear about what they know and what they don’t know in these situations.
What’s difficult with Trump is that no president in history had had such a casual relationship with the truth. He repeatedly says things that are provably false and, if ever called out on that fact, attributes it to something he heard or read somewhere.
The unfortunate result of that sort of “truthiness” is a numbness that begins to develop around the things he says that are simply not true. There’s a tendency to gloss over the smaller inconsistencies to focus on bigger – or just other – inconsistencies.
That appears to be what’s happening here.
But to reiterate: The president of the United States described an attack in a foreign country as “terror” despite the fact that even 24 hours later the police on the ground insist it’s not.
It’s possible that the ISIS claims of responsibility will, eventually, be proven out and the Manila police will be shown to be wrong. But, that’s not the point. At the time Trump pronounced the Manila episode as a “terror attack” there was no evidence of that claim – and, in fact, there was plenty of evidence to the contrary.
In short: Trump couldn’t have known definitively from “media reports” that this was a terrorist incident. That he went ahead and labeled it as such anyway speaks to a looseness with words – and facts – that, more than anything else, have defined his first 133 days as president.