On Sunday morning, Trump confirmed reports that the leader of the Islamic State had been killed in a military raid the previous day

By Maria Pasquini
October 28, 2019 03:17 PM
Credit: Shealah Craighead/AP/Shutterstock ; Pete Souza/The White House via Getty

President Donald Trump is frequently contrasted with his Oval Office predecessor Barack Obama — comparisons Trump sometimes encourages, to highlight himself, while detractors frame it in reverse.

His Sunday announcement that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead, echoing a dramatic Obama revelation eight years earlier, was no exception.

On Sunday morning, Trump, 73, confirmed reports that al-Baghdadi had been killed in a nighttime military raid that weekend.

Speaking with reporters, Trump seemed to subtly distinguish al-Baghdadi’s killing from that of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, who died in a U.S. military operation under President Obama in 2011.

As Trump did, Obama announced news of bin Laden’s death in a widely watched statement from the White House.

“Osama bin Laden was very big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, ‘a country,’ a caliphate, and was trying to do it again,” Trump said Sunday.

“The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him,” Trump said of al-Baghdadi.

After his announcement, photos were quickly released which showed him monitoring the operation from the White House’s Situation Room.

In the images, Trump sits directly in the center of the frame with a serious look on his face, as he appears to look straight into the camera lens. Seated next to him around a table are Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other members of the administration — all of whom have composed looks on their faces and are either wearing suits and ties or military uniforms.

Many critics online were quick to point out just how different Trump’s photos look compared to images taken in 2011 when Obama, 58, and senior administration officials monitored the raid which killed bin Laden.

Donald Trump (center) with, from left, Robert O’Brien, Mike Pence, Mark Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley
Donald Trump (center) with, from left, Robert O’Brien, Mike Pence, Mark Esper, Gen. Mark A. Milley and Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans

The 2011 photos show Obama wearing a polo shirt and a jacket, leaning forward next to Brig. Gen. Marshall Webb, who sits at the head of a table in front of a laptop, which was used to communicate with military personal on the ground in Afghanistan.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can also be seen seated around one side of the table with her hand over her mouth while in the background many additional members of Obama’s administration crowd closer, as though to see more of the operation.

“Which of these pictures looks real and which looks posed?” David Axelrod, a former senior Obama aide and now a senior political commentator for CNN, wrote on Twitter alongside a side-by-side of the two shots.

Barack Obama with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team

In addition to retweeting the image, Pete Souza, who worked as the director of the White House Photography Office during Obama’s time in office, pointed to an apparent time-stamp discrepancy implying Trump’s photo may have been staged — an unproven claim.

Souza soon walked back his suggestion.

“The raid, as reported, took place at 3:30PM Washington time. The photo, as shown in the camera IPTC data, was taken at “17:05:24 [5:05 p.m.],” Souza tweeted.

The theory that the images were taken after the raid was completed is also based on multiple reports that Trump spent time on the golf course on Saturday and didn’t arrive at the White House until after 4 p.m., according to Snopes.

However, the contention that the raid took place at 3:30 p.m. is reportedly inaccurate.

Responding to Souza’s Tweet, New Yorker reporter Ben Taub wrote, “First on-the-ground posts about a helicopter raid in Idlib started surfacing shortly after 5PM EST, 11PM in Syria.”

“Yes, the photo looks staged as hell, but this timing controversy is based on a false premise,” Taub added.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told PEOPLE: “The photo was taken during a portion of the raid and was not staged.”

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Souza went on to clarify his statements, writing, “just to be clear, I didn’t say it was staged.”

“Trump himself said he didn’t arrive to the Situation Room until ‘around 5pm’. So it’s definitely possible the photo was taken during the raid,” Souza wrote, later replying to his original tweet with updated reporting from The New York Times.

“The latest reporting from the NYT: the helicopters left Iraq at 5PM (Washington time), and they reported it was about a 70-minute flight to Syria. So actual raid had to happen some time after 6:10PM,” he wrote, which would line up with the time stamp on the White House photo.

Commenting on the photographs themselves, Souza pointed out that when photographing the White House reaction to the bin Laden operation in 2011, he took many more images than the one that was first released.

“During the raid itself, I made around 100 photos. I chose what I thought was the best one. I made around 1,000 photos throughout that day. Every photo was saved (as required by the Presidential Records Act), and eventually every photo will be made public,” Souza wrote.

He also included a link to several other images from the day, one of which showed Obama appearing to sit at the head of a table in the Situation Room, as Trump did in his photo.