The president showed long ago that he doesn’t express sympathy without an agenda.
My husband died a quiet death. No flags were lowered to honor him. No presidential words of sorrow and sympathy were expressed. His death did not make national news; the local paper reported simply of a body found on the beach.
I cannot imagine how I would have survived those first few days … weeks … months of raw, stinging, stabbing, all-consuming grief had the nature of my tragedy forced me to live them in the national spotlight. I at least could mourn my husband’s quiet death in private, without having to live my grief in front of cameras and the awkward gaze of the nation. And the self-serving exploitation of a new president.\
On Tuesday, Donald Trump proclaimed that Navy SEAL Ryan Owens — who died in Yemen on an intelligence-gathering mission Trump ordered over dinner, and which was reported earlier in the day to have been a failure — was looking down from heaven, happy because he broke a record for congressional standing ovations. Even in this moment, the new president could not help but brag that his words had inspired the hugest, greatest standing ovation ever, so long and loud, it’ll make your head spin. Believe me.
Perhaps Trump’s words brought Carryn Owens, a newly grieving widow, some comfort. For her sake, I hope they did. When you are a grieving widow, so little can. Your world turns upside down, inside out, backward and all wrong — and you are grateful for whatever might bring you the briefest reprieve from the endless ache of your loss. You feel the absence of your beloved in every breath you take; sometimes you feel relieved when someone else sees that absence too. Whatever Trump’s intention behind his words, I hope for Carryn Owens that they at least gave her that, a sliver of a second of relief from the soul-crushing invisible loneliness of mourning.
Had my husband’s quiet death nearly seven years ago caught the attention of the president, I don’t know what few sentences he could have uttered in a speech to console me. “I am sorry for your loss,” perhaps. “I will do everything in my power to prevent another death like this,” might have been good. No words could have undone my loss or unbroken my heart. My husband was dead; not even a president could bring him back to me.
At the very least, I would have hoped my president would be capable of humility, of kindness, and of a recognition that my loss is not about his glory or his blamelessness, but about the tragedy that forever changed my life.
It’s hard to imagine, though, that Trump’s words were intended to comfort, and not instead to establish his innocence in this tragedy, to prove that he is a victim of the generals’ insistence upon this mission and of the previous administration’s plans, as he also claimed earlier in the day, and that certainly he bears no responsibility for Carryn Owens’s grief.
After all, Trump’s astonishing lack of empathy has been well-documented — from his repeated attacks during the 2016 election on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of United States Army Captain Humayun Khan, to the horrifying story of Trump cutting off health benefits for his own nephew just to spite his family.
After the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub last year, Trump praised himself on Twitter for “being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” Asked recently about the dozens of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and schools, Trump found no sympathy for those victims of terror, but only for himself, the victim of a reporter’s question he did not care to answer.
Trump’s sympathy for victims and their families is arbitrary at best and seemingly never without a crass, cynical agenda — to justify his policies, to attack others, or to lavish congratulations upon himself. To demonstrate his supposed empathy for victims of violent crimes, Trump announced in his speech the creation of a new office, Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE), devoted to crimes committed exclusively by immigrants — one of his favorite subjects, which he invokes regularly to justify his anti-immigration policies. This, as his administration reportedly intends to shift the focus of an existing counter-terrorism program away from white supremacist and right-wing extremism to Islamic extremism only. Trump is unconcerned with the violence committed by white, homegrown criminals.
A knife attack in Paris, in which there were no fatalities and one minor injury, was tweet-worthy for Trump to justify his Muslim ban; the deadly shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, allegedly by a far-right extremist and Trump supporter, was greeted with deafening presidential silence.
So it is hard to give Trump any benefit of the doubt or credit when it comes to his words about Navy SEAL Owens during his Tuesday night address, even as a flood of post-speech punditry declared this moment marked the long-awaited pivot (at last!), when Trump finally learned to put his pettiness, cruelty, and braggadocio aside and to take seriously the enormous responsibility of the office he holds.
Trump is, the day after his speech, still Trump: a man who has compared his “sacrifices” — of creating jobs, building “great structures,” and having “tremendous success” — to those of our fallen military and their families. He is, first and foremost, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the hero or victim of every story he tells, in which the pain of others is merely a background for his preferred self-serving narrative. And there is nothing presidential about that.