During his Tuesday night address to the U.S. Congress, President Trump paid tribute to Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL killed in the January commando raid in Yemen that Trump ordered. As he did so, television cameras focused for almost four full minutes on Owens’ grieving wife, Carryn, as she wept and applauded while sitting next to and being periodically touched by Trump’s glamorous daughter, Ivanka. The entire chamber stood together in sustained applause, with Trump interjecting scripted, lyrical expressions of support and gratitude for her husband’s sacrifice.
It was, as intended, an obviously powerful TV moment. Independent of the political intent behind it, any well-functioning human being would feel great empathy watching a grieving spouse mourning and struggling to emotionally cope with the recent, sudden death of her partner. The majestic setting of the U.S. Congress, solemnly presided over by the U.S. President, vested the moment with political gravity.
Media commentators predictably gushed that this was the moment Trump became “presidential.” Meanwhile, the U.S. media’s most reliable partisan warriors, horrified that the moment might benefit Trump, instantly accused him of exploiting these emotions, and exploiting Carryn Owens herself, for his own political benefit.
While there is certainly truth in their claim that Trump’s use of the suffering of soldiers is politically opportunistic, even exploitative, this tactic was hardly one Trump pioneered. In fact, it is completely standard for U.S. presidents. Though Trump’s attackers did not mention it, Obama often included tales of solider sacrifice, death and suffering in his political speeches — including when he devoted four highly emotional minutes in his 2014 State of the Union address to narrating the story of, and paying emotional tribute to, Sgt. Cory Remsburg, who was severely wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan: