AUSTIN, TEXAS — Retired Adm. William H. McRaven — the former chancellor of the University of Texas system — on Sunday stood by a previous statement that Donald Trump’s attacks on the media represent “the greatest threat to democracy after the latter ridiculed him in an interview with Fox News.
In what CNN described as a “tense exchange” with Chris Wallace on Fox News, the host brought up McRaven, a vocal Trump critic who led the 2011 operation to kill Osama bin Laden during the administration of Barack Obama. Angrily, Trump interrupted Wallace when he brought up McRaven by dismissing McRaven as simply a “HIllary Clinton fan,” even thought the admiral didn’t make any endorsement during the 2016 presidential race.
“I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else,” McRaven, later told CNN. “I am a fan of President Obama and President George W. Bush, both of whom I worked for. I admire all presidents, regardless of their political party, who uphold the dignity of the office and who use that office to bring the nation together in challenging times.”
“I stand by my comment that the President’s attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime,” McRaven said, referencing remarks he made about Trump last year.”When you undermine the people’s right to a free press and freedom of speech and expression, then you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands.”
McRaven’s statement was issued after Trump criticized the admiral for not having gotten bin Laden killed sooner, while suggesting (without evidence) that McRaven’s critiques of his administration are based on his political backing of Obama and Clinton.
“Bill McRaven, retired admiral, Navy SEAL, 37 years, former head of US Special Operations…” Wallace said in invoking McRaven as a topic of the far-ranging interview.
“Hillary Clinton fan,” Trump said, cutting Wallace off in mid-sentence.
“Special Operations …” Wallace continued.
“Excuse me! Hillary Clinton fan,” Trump said, interrupting Wallace again.
“Who led the operations,” Wallace added, “commanded the operations that took down Saddam Hussein and that killed Osama bin Laden, says that your sentiment is the greatest threat to democracy in his lifetime.”
“OK, he’s a Hilary Clinton backer and an Obama-backer, and frankly … wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that? Wouldn’t it have been nice? You know, living —think of this — living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan.”
On Monday, Trump doubled down on his criticism of McRaven, a highly decorated and highly regarded military veteran: “Of course we should have captured Osama Bin Laden long before we did,” Trump wrote on Twitter Monday. “I pointed him out in my book just BEFORE the attack on the World Trade Center. President Clinton famously missed his shot. We paid Pakistan Billions of Dollars & they never told us he was living there. Fools!”
Trump wasn’t done there, issuing a defense to his McRaven critique as a Twitter two-parter:
“We no longer pay Pakistan the $Billions because they would take our money and do nothing for us, Bin Laden being a prime example, Afghanistan being another. They were just one of many countries that take from the United States without giving anything in return. That’s ENDING!”
McRaven has been critical of Trump’s hatred of the free press the president has deemed to be “the enemy of the people.” During a speech at UT-Austin’s Moody College of Communications In February, McRaven called Trump’s anti-press sentiment as possibly “…the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime,” he said. “We must challenge this statement and this sentiment that the news media is the enemy of the American people,” McRaven said, according to the Daily Texan, the student-run campus newspaper.
Before becoming chancellor of the UT system in 2015, four-star Adm. McRaven was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command who led Navy Seals in killing of bin Laden, the architect of the 911 attack.
Following Trump’s attack on McRaven, many observers — including those in the president’s own political party — took to social media to convey their respect for the admiral. “I don’t know if Adm. William McRaven shares my political views or not,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida wrote. “But I do know that few Americans have sacrificed or risked more than he has to protect America & the freedoms we enjoy. His military career exemplified honor & excellence. I am grateful for his service.”
Leon Panetta, former secretary of Defense and CIA director went further, telling journalist Andrea Mitchell: “The president owes Adm. McRaven, and all the SEALs, that were involved in that operation an apology.”
For its part, the GOP stood by Trump while repeating the inference that McRaven’s critiques were driven by political partisanship: “Worth noting after recent comments: Retired Adm. William McRaven was reportedly on Hillary Clinton’s short list for Vice President in 2016. He’s been critical of President @realDonaldTrump— even dating back to the 2016 campaign. He’s hardly a non-political figure,” the official Republican Party stance reads.
Despite the extent and ongoing impact of the 911 attack engineered by bin Laden, the terrorist’s killing was not a priority of the administration of President George W. Bush under whose watch the tragedy occurred. In 2006, conservative Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes told Fox News that Bush told him “bin Laden doesn’t fit with the administration’s strategy for combating terrorism.” Capturing bin Laden, Barnes added, is “not a top priority use of American resources,” he recalled Bush telling him.
A mere six months after 9/11, Bush suggested in a press conference that bin Laden was not a top priority for his administration. When asked if capturing bin Laden was important, The Hill reported, Bush scolded those focusing on bin Laden as not “understand[ing] the scope of the mission” because Bin Laden was just “one person,” whom Bush said, “I really just don’t spend that much time on.”
Avenging the killing of nearly 3,000 Americans as a result of the 911 attack gained renewed focus during the Obama administration. President Barack Obama gave approval for the May 2, 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound in an operation dubbed Operation Neptune Spear that was carried out in a CIA-led operation with Joint Special Operations Command. In addition to SEAL Team Six, other participating units under JSOC included the 160th Special Operations Aviations Regiment also known as “Night Stalkers” and operators from the CIA’s Special Activities Division.
Trump’s reductive analysis with McRaven cast as central figure (even though the task of finding bin Laden rested with the CIA, not the admiral) is likely rooted in lingering anger over the retired admiral’s earlier rebuke in August via a Washington Post editorial that Trump, through his actions, has “embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”
McRaven also took Trump to task for having revoked the security clearance of Former CIA director John Brennan in retaliation for his own expressed critiques of the administration. In his criticism of the move, McRaven invited Trump to revoke his security clearance as well.
Related story: Admiral McRaven To Trump: Revoke My Security Clearance Too
Trump’s attack on McRaven, a 37-year military veteran, is the latest slight to the military in recent days. In the Fox News interview, Trump expressed regret of not having visited Arlington National Cemetery during the Nov. 11 observance of Veterans Day. And last week, Trump traveled to France for events marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I but skipped a ceremony at Aisne Marne American Cemetery because it was raining.
Trump also was roundly criticized over his dismissal of the late Sen. John McCain as having been less of an American hero because he was captured by the enemy when his military jet crashed over Vietnam. “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured,” Trump said of McCain — who spent five years as a prisoner of war — while on the stump in his presidential campaign during 2015.
As for his own draft experience during the Vietnam era, Trump secured a deferment after claiming he had bone spurs on a foot, a condition he said had been temporary. “I had a doctor that gave me a letter — a very strong letter on the heels,” Mr. Trump said in a 2016 interview with the New York Times.
“Asked to provide The Times with a copy of the letter, which he had obtained after his fourth student deferment, Mr. Trump said he would have to look for it,” the New York Times added in its report. A spokeswoman later did not respond to repeated requests for copies of that letter, and it has yet to be produced to this day.
McRaven stepped down from his UT chancellor’s post earlier this year, citing health reasons, after being appointed in 2015. A UT-Austin alumnus who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he returned to his alma mater to deliver the commencement address for the Class of 2014 with a speech that inspired many and prompted still others to start making their beds before leaving the house as part of their daily routines:
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>>> Photo of Adm. William H. McRaven via University of Texas at Austin; Photo of Trump outside the Elysee Palace after talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, Saturday, Nov.10, 2018, by Thibault Camus/Associated Press