Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Dignified transfer.” That’s what the military calls the solemn process of returning fallen heroes to the family they loved and the country they served. If you have ever witnessed it, you’re never quite the same after. August 13, 1998, was by far the most difficult day I had as a senior White House aide to President Clinton. Al Qaeda terrorists led by Osama bin Laden had bombed our embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, a week earlier. Twelve Americans were killed; some were State Department servants, others were Marines. All were heroes.
I accompanied the President and First Lady, along with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and others to Joint Base Andrews to bear witness to the dignified transfer. That very day my oldest son turned 6. He had not a care in the world, nor the slightest concern that Daddy might not ever come home. But those families, they were already worried even before the attacks. Someone they loved was serving their country half a world away. Nearly a quarter-century later, none of their birthdays or weddings, anniversaries or graduations have been the same.
I have never forgotten those families or that day. Like everyone, I was heartbroken. But our grief soon hardened into resolve. Clinton, especially, felt the burden to avenge their death. It’s fair to say he became almost obsessed with al Qaeda for the remainder of his presidency. He tried to get bin Laden and narrowly missed. His successor, of course, declared war against the Taliban to avenge 9/11. And then the next President, Barack Obama, in a remarkable display of courage, ordered Navy SEALS to storm bin Laden’s compound. And justice was done.
It took three presidents 13 years to get bin Laden, but each stayed at it. Not doing so would have shown weakness, which in turn would invite aggression. Every president must know this from day one. In the first six months of the first year of his first term, Clinton learned that Saddam Hussein had plotted to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush. Clinton didn’t invite Saddam to join the G-7. He bombed Baghdad, leveling the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence.
“We will combat terrorism,” Clinton said in an address at the time. “We will deter aggression. We will protect our people.”
Yes, like you I thought I had lost my capacity to be shocked by Trump. Trump himself has witnessed a dignified transfer. He has seen the flag-draped coffins unloaded, heard the muffled sobs of the heartbroken, seen the bottomless grief in the eyes of a child who’s lost a parent. How can it be that, after reportedly being briefed about Putin targeting American troops for death Trump has offered Putin rewards, like an invitation to rejoin the leading democracies of the G-7 and come to the US for a meeting of the leaders of the free world. An American president who truly loved the troops might perhaps invite Putin to join bin Laden at the gates of hell.
It is a long list, the outrageous things Mr. Trump has said and done. But this has got to be the worst. If true, he has refused to avenge the deaths of American troops – heroes under his command. Much worse even than sucking up to Putin in Helsinki, where he betrayed our country, siding with the Russian president over the US intelligence community. Worse even than Charlottesville, where a neo-Nazi murdered an innocent woman, and Trump declared there were “very fine people on both sides” – drawing a moral equivalence between peaceful patriots and torch-bearing white supremacists..
As first reported by the New York Times on Sunday, Trump denied being briefed on Russia’s terrorist scheme.
He later tweeted that he was informed of the intelligence on Russian bounties, saying: “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP. Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!”
I don’t believe the denial. Trump lies like you and I breathe: he takes in oxygen and exhales lies. Moreover, if the intelligence community spotted such a dire threat to our troops and did not immediately brief the commander in chief, heads would roll. But even if it’s true, Trump sure knows about the plan now. It is time to respond. Time for punishment. Time for deterrence. Time to make those who target American troops tremble.
If Donald Trump won’t, for whatever reason, Russia should take no comfort from his weakness. Patriotic Americans on both sides of the aisle are surging support to Joe Biden, in part because we must have a President who protects America and the heroes who defend us. We will combat terrorism. We will deter aggression. We will protect our people.