Analyzing how 3 US presidents announced the deaths of terrorist leaders: NPR


President Barack Obama makes a televised announcement that Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. President Donald Trump makes a statement announcing the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019. President Biden announces Monday that a US drone strike in Afghanistan killed al. – Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Brendan Smialowski/Pool; Alex Wong; Jim Watson/Pool/Getty Images


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Brendan Smialowski/Pool; Alex Wong; Jim Watson/Pool/Getty Images


President Barack Obama makes a televised statement that Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. President Donald Trump makes a statement announcing the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019. President Biden announces on Monday that a US drone strike in Afghanistan killed al. – Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Brendan Smialowski/Pool; Alex Wong; Jim Watson/Pool/Getty Images

The sight of a US president announcing the death of a terrorist leader has been a fixture of American politics for the past 11 years.

The words spoken by each president and their mannerisms at the podium reveal much about the type of leaders former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump tried to be, and in the case of President Joe Biden, are trying to be.

This week, Biden announced that the US had killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul over the weekend.

In 2019, Trump revealed that the US had killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And in 2011, Obama told the American people that Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, had been killed.

In the days after Biden’s announcement, edited videos comparing speeches by Biden, Obama and Trump appeared online. Although some of the videos are designed to cast certain leaders in a bad light, analyzing these three speeches is worthwhile, according to historians and rhetoric experts who spoke to NPR.

Looking deeper into each speech, its delivery, even down to the words used, provides a small window into each person, these experts said.

Although radically different characters, there are similarities worth noting, said Thomas Schwartz, professor of history, political science and European studies at Vanderbilt University.

The fact that Obama, Trump and Biden took center stage to announce the execution of another person is “a little bloodthirsty,” Schwartz said.

“But they recognize that there is an internal political benefit to eliminating terrorist leaders, and they want to claim it,” he added.

Every president makes a special note in his speech to say this them ordered the military and intelligence officials to act on the information provided that them gave the orders, Schwartz said. Each person ultimately wants to assert their leadership on the global stage, he said.

“Underneath all of this are presidents who are trying to justify themselves politically and win something politically,” Schwartz said. “So I think our comparison at that level is probably warranted, even if in terms of the stylistic stuff it reminds people of what they like and don’t like about different presidents.”

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Obama’s bin Laden speech looms large

President Barack Obama reads his statement to photographers after making a televised announcement about the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House on May 1, 2011.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP


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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP


President Barack Obama reads his statement to photographers after making a televised announcement about the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House on May 1, 2011.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Every pundit who spoke to NPR agreed: Obama’s speech was iconic. While Trump and Biden have removed major terrorist leaders, the gravity of bin Laden’s killing is unparalleled. To some extent, Trump and Biden even tried to emulate Obama’s speech about bin Laden, Schwartz said.

“Bin Laden, of course, was someone who was a household name in a way that the other two men were not,” said Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington. “So it was kind of an extraordinary historical moment and something that in some ways seems bigger than the other two because it was bin Laden.”

O’Mara noted that Obama took time to acknowledge the emotion for the victims of 9/11 nearly a decade after the attacks.

“Obama is speaking almost within a decade of 9/11, so it’s much harsher,” she said.

Obama, in a measured and somber tone, said in his nine-minute speech: “Nearly 10 years ago, a bright September day was marred by the worst attack on the American people in our history.”

In this image released by the White House and digitally altered by the source to spread the paper in front of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room on May 1, 2011.

Pete Souza/AP


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Pete Souza/AP


In this image released by the White House and digitally altered by the source to spread the paper in front of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room on May 1, 2011.

Pete Souza/AP

He continued by saying, “Yet we know that the worst images are those that have not been seen by the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or father. Parents who would never know the feeling of holding their child. Nearly 3,000 citizens were taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.”

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Obama also carefully describes how the White House obtained intelligence on bin Laden and a brief description of the steps taken by special forces to kill him.

“There’s no question that watching Obama, you’re reminded of how thoughtful and almost academic his style of discussing things can be,” Schwartz noted.

Trump rejects traditional presidential rhetoric

Former President Donald Trump speaks Oct. 27, 2019, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House, announcing that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group, is dead after being targeted by a U.S. military strike in Syria.

Manuel Balche Chenetta/AP


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Manuel Balche Chenetta/AP


Former President Donald Trump speaks Oct. 27, 2019, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House, announcing that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group, is dead after being targeted by a U.S. military strike in Syria.

Manuel Balche Chenetta/AP

Former President Trump took a far different approach when announcing the execution of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019.

Taking a moment to analyze Trump’s speech compared to Obama and Biden provides “a window into a lot of things,” O’Mara said.

“In a very clear way, it’s a window into how Trump was such a different president — and not just different from the two men who were on either side of him, but different from modern presidents in general,” she said. “If you dial back and look at the presidential speech of the presidents of both parties, it’s very different in terms of not only the tone, but the type of information that’s being conveyed.”

Trump, known for long rally speeches during his presidency, spoke much longer than Obama or Biden in this announcement. His initial speech lasted more than eight minutes, but he continued to take questions from reporters for another 40 minutes.

And with his usual flair, Trump spoke about the attack in dramatic detail, using emotional language to describe both al-Baghdadi and how he died.

“No personnel were lost in the operation, while a large number of fighters and companions of Baghdadi were killed with it. He died after crashing into a dead end tunnel, whimpering, crying and screaming the entire way,” Trump said.

He went on to describe the operation, saying: “The bandit, who was trying so hard to intimidate others, spent his last moments in complete fear, in complete panic and fear, terrified of the American forces attacking him.”

This harkens back to Trump’s background not in politics but as a businessman and reality star, these experts noted.

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“One of the things that was very remarkable about Trump’s presidential rhetoric was that he claimed he didn’t want to use it, he said he didn’t want to be president,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric and professor at Texas A&M University. “He thought it was presidential [style] he was boring and lame and thought he won the presidency by being dynamic and interesting. So, I think that’s very clearly reflected.”

By comparison, Biden and Obama gave very dark speeches, she said.

Biden is trying to make a show of strength

President Biden spoke from the balcony of the Blue Room of the White House on Monday as he announced that a US drone strike had killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan.

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Jim Watson/AP


President Biden spoke from the balcony of the Blue Room of the White House on Monday as he announced that a US drone strike had killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan.

Jim Watson/AP

Biden is known to struggle with gaffes and inaccuracies in speeches. He even sometimes said the opposite of what he meant, as noted by a New York Times piece during the 2020 presidential campaign.

For the message about the assassination of al-Zawahiri, Biden (like the two presidents before him) wanted to communicate strength and power, Schwartz said.

Both Obama and Biden showed restraint in the language and description used to explain the killing of al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, Mercieka said.

Both men used the president’s office to sound official and talk about justice for the victims of 9/11.

Biden said of al-Zawahiri: “He has blazed a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats and American interests. And since the United States brought justice to bin Laden 11 years ago, Zawahiri has been al-Qaeda’s leader — the leader.”

He added: “Justice has now been served and this terrorist leader is no more.”

Presidents do this to “somewhat elevate what can be a very egregious event, which is that the United States has retaliated and killed somebody else,” Mercieca said.

“What Donald Trump did was the exact opposite. He didn’t try to elevate it,” she said. “Instead he called the person a ‘dog’, he described very crudely how they died and what that meant.”

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