WASHINGTON, DC – Democratic presidential candidates are heaping praise on U.S. military forces who pulled off the weekend raid that left Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dead. But they've made clear that commendation doesn't extend to President Donald Trump.
"This victory was not due to Donald Trump's leadership," former Vice President Joe Biden said Monday. "It happened despite his ineptitude."
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said the successful mission was "accomplished with information supplied by the Kurds" Trump abandoned when he recently announced plans to withdraw most U.S. troops from Syria. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar told CBS that al-Baghdadi's killing doesn't mean Trump's "foreign policy overall has not been a disaster."
Nearly one year before Election Day, the raid is a reminder of how developments overseas can quickly influence the presidential campaign. Trump is eager to turn al-Baghdadi's death into a defining moment of his administration, one that could remind waffling Republicans why they support him. And Democrats, who have largely been focused issues such as health care and combating rising college debt, must now decry Trump's foreign policy without appearing to disparage U.S. forces.
It's a balance that could be tough for the White House hopefuls to pull off.
"You have to give credit where credit is due. He is the commander in chief and this is a significant victory for the U.S. military and intelligence and there shouldn't be a caveat to that. Period, full stop," said Democratic strategist Mustafa Tameez. "The next question is, what is our strategy in Syria ... Certainly all of us understand that al-Baghdadi was a vicious killer but (Islamic State) doesn't end with him."
The roles were reversed when U.S. forces under President Barack Obama killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Democrats made that mission along with government bailouts that bolstered U.S. automakers a centerpiece of Obama's successful 2012 campaign.
Biden happily reveled in one of the Democrats' favorite slogans that year: "Bin Laden is dead. GM is alive." And it was Trump who was among the Republicans discouraging too much credit going to the commander in chief.
"Stop congratulating Obama for killing Bin Laden," Trump tweeted. "The Navy Seals killed Bin Laden."
So far, foreign policy hasn't been a leading issue in the Democratic presidential primary, which has instead focused on top domestic issues and a broader philosophical debate over whether the party is moving too far to the left. As a veteran lawmaker and two-term vice president, Biden could be the biggest beneficiary if foreign policy moved to the forefront of the campaign.
Trump has "made it less likely we will be able to successfully replicate a mission like this in the future," Biden said in a statement. "The operation leveraged a limited presence of U.S. counterterrorism capabilities in the region, which he keeps trying to dismantle. It was made possible by the work of intelligence professionals, who he has relentlessly attacked. It relied on allies he has belittled, undermined, and in some cases betrayed and abandoned."
Still, other Democrats aren't ceding the issue to him.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted that "Baghdadi's death closes one chapter, but it is not the end of our fight against terrorism" and California Sen. Kamala Harris also referenced the president's past antagonism of U.S. intelligence leaders, telling CNN, "There's just not been any consistency from Donald Trump about who our intelligence community is."
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who served in Afghanistan, was somewhat more conciliatory, saying "credit should go to all involved" while adding that "those who were at the tip of the spear deserve the most credit."
As painstakingly as Democrats weaved verbal knots to praise the military but not the president, Trump went out of his way to declare al-Bahdadi's death a personal triumph. In announcing it Sunday, he even used graphic language and while openly antagonizing political critics.
Baghdadi "died like a dog," the president said. "He died like a coward."
Trump seemed ready to bask in post-raid appreciation when he appeared at Game 5 of the World Series hours later — only to be roundly booed by the crowd in Washington, where Democrats have dominated local politics for decades. Undaunted, he again trumpeted al-Baghdadi's death while addressing the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference in Chicago on Monday, this time to cheers.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon called al-Baghdadi's death a political win for Trump but added, "I really think he overplayed it," comparing Trump's boastful announcement to a far more measured and somber tone Obama took in announcing bin Laden's death the year before he was up for reelection.
"I'd suggest that he might have gotten even more political mileage out of it by playing it straight," Bannon said. "This is the perfect opportunity for Donald Trump to be presidential. Instead he was Donald Trump."