An Exaggerated Trump Achievement Worthy of Applause
Earlier this month, President Trump welcomed another American hostage home. In an Oval Office ceremony, Danny Burch, an oil-company engineer who had been held captive by a criminal gang in Yemen for eighteen months, sat beside the President in a chair typically occupied by visiting heads of state. ‚ÄúHe was in Yemen, in a very horrible situation‚ÄĒa captive, a prisoner,‚ÄĚ Trump said. ‚ÄúYou can call him whatever you want, but it wasn‚Äôt good.‚ÄĚ Trump then thanked the United Arab Emirates for conducting a raid that freed Burch (the C.I.A. also played a role), and then asked the former captive if he wanted to say anything. Burch paused for a moment, and said, ‚ÄúGosh, it‚Äôs great to be an American.‚ÄĚ
Trump had gathered a group of senior officials to meet Burch. Vice-President Mike Pence and Robert O‚ÄôBrien, the Administration‚Äôs Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, sat on nearby couches. Senators Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney, who were in the White House for a meeting on trade talks with China, were also called in. Burch and O‚ÄôBrien thanked Trump, who then boasted of his success in freeing hostages: ‚ÄúWell, I will say, Danny, we‚Äôre 20 and 0.¬†We‚Äôve gotten a lot of them out.‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôBrien said that the President‚Äôs leadership and popularity were responsible for an unprecedented number of Americans being released from captivity abroad. ‚ÄúThis wouldn‚Äôt happen with all of these hostages and detainees without the support of the President,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThe President has had unparalleled success in bringing Americans home without paying concessions, without prisoner exchanges, but through force of will and the good will that he‚Äôs generated around the world.‚ÄĚ
The next day, at a hearing on Capitol Hill, relatives of four of the six Americans currently imprisoned or missing in Iran entreated Trump to bring them home as well. Christine Levinson, whose husband, Bob, a former F.B.I. agent and C.I.A. contractor who went missing in Iran twelve years ago, said that Presidents Bush and Obama had failed her family, and asked Trump to meet with her. ‚ÄúAfter three very different Presidential Administrations, we are no closer to bringing Bob home than when we started,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs necessary for the Trump Administration to make it a priority.‚ÄĚ Babak Namazi,¬†whose brother and elderly father were both arrested in Iran three years ago, cited Trump‚Äôs freeing of three captives from North Korea last year as a model of success. ‚ÄúThe only way is through dialogue,‚ÄĚ Namazi said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôve managed to get hostages home from countries that we thought we were going to go to war with imminently.‚ÄĚ Omar Zakka, whose father, Nizar, a Lebanese citizen and permanent resident of the United States, was arrested in 2015 while attending a human-rights conference in Iran, said that he would be grateful to simply hear Trump call for his father‚Äôs release publicly. ‚ÄúI hope that our families are next,‚ÄĚ Zakka said. ‚ÄúAll of our families.‚ÄĚ (At least two other Americans are currently imprisoned in Iran. Xiyue Wang, a graduate student at Princeton, was arrested in August of 2016 and later sentenced to ten years in prison. Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran, disappeared in July of 2018 while visiting his girlfriend in Iran. Last week, he was sentenced to ten years in prison.)
Trump has elevated the release of hostages to a level of Presidential involvement not seen since Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office. Former diplomats and experts in hostage policy have praised him for this; nothing signals more clearly to American diplomats, foreign heads of state, or actors abroad the priority of an issue than personal attention from the President. As someone who was briefly held captive overseas a decade ago, I thank Trump for those efforts, too. He seems to relish freeing captives; last year, when the three Americans returned from North Korea, Trump, Pence, and their wives met them at Joint Base Andrews, in an event that was broadcast live on TV, at 3 A.M. The President has welcomed the return of at least two other captives in Oval Office ceremonies. But, as he demonstrated in his meeting with Burch, he is publicly keeping score, and many in the field worry that his habit of showcasing his own roll and record could complicate future releases.
Accurately counting the number of captives freed by a President can be elusive. James O‚ÄôBrien, a career diplomat who served as the first Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, under Barack Obama, and is no relation to Robert O‚ÄôBrien, told me that roughly a hundred captives were freed during the seventeen months that he held the position, in 2015 and 2016. About sixty of them were short-term criminal abductions that the F.B.I., or the captives‚Äô families themselves, were able to resolve. O‚ÄôBrien said that another forty cases were long-term kidnappings or imprisonments that proved far more difficult to resolve. These involved Americans taken captive by terrorist groups‚ÄĒsuch as the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were murdered by ISIS in 2014‚ÄĒor unjustly imprisoned by governments hostile to the United States. According to O‚ÄôBrien, when Obama left office, about a dozen Americans remained in long-term captivity.
Several of those captives have been freed, thanks to the efforts of the Trump Administration. In April of 2017, Aya Hijazi, an American aid worker imprisoned in Egypt, was freed after nearly three years of detention, on false child-abuse and human-trafficking charges. Two months later, North Korea released the American college student Otto Warmbier, though he died shortly after his return, due to severe brain injuries that he suffered in captivity. That October, Caitlan Coleman, her Canadian husband, and their three children were freed in a raid by Pakistani security forces, five years after being abducted in Afghanistan. (Again, the C.I.A. also played a role.) But other Americans, in addition to the six in Iran, remain in captivity, including the journalist Austin Tice, who has been missing in Syria for seven years; Kevin King, a college professor abducted by the Taliban, in Kabul, in 2016; Jeffrey Woodke, a missionary kidnapped the same year by an Al Qaeda affiliate, in Niger; and Paul Overby, a freelance journalist who has been missing in Pakistan since 2014.
James O‚ÄôBrien praised Trump‚Äôs efforts but questioned his scorekeeping. ‚ÄúI think President Trump deserves a lot of credit for bringing Americans home,‚ÄĚ he told me. But, in reference to Trump‚Äôs ‚Äú20 and 0‚ÄĚ remark, he said, ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt understand any of those numbers. It‚Äôs unseemly.‚ÄĚ He said that several Americans have been taken hostage since Trump became President, and that most of the dozen who were in captivity when he took office remain imprisoned. ‚ÄúBy my count, two-thirds of them are still in prison illegitimately. So I don‚Äôt know what the ‚Äėzero‚Äô could possibly mean.‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôBrien noted that Trump‚Äôs bragging about freeing hostages may inadvertently create an incentive for governments or groups who want leverage over the President to abduct Americans. ‚ÄúA serious factor to consider is whether public attention raises the price and makes it harder to get people home,‚ÄĚ he said.
Joel Simon, the author of a new book on hostage policy, ‚ÄúWe Want to Negotiate,‚ÄĚ also expressed unease with Trump‚Äôs focus on numbers. ‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs safe to say no one was thinking about it in these terms, and tracking numbers in this way, before,‚ÄĚ he told me. ‚ÄúThe Trump Administration can legitimately tout their accomplishments in this area, and even talk about the number of Americans they‚Äôve helped free. But calling it a record is meaningless and potentially counterproductive.‚ÄĚ
Trump‚Äôs meeting with Burch reflected the contradictions of his Presidency. Near the end of the gathering, Trump called his envoy, Robert O‚ÄôBrien, ‚Äúthe greatest hostage negotiator in our history.‚ÄĚ Then he predicted that the press would not give the diplomat the acclaim he deserved, adding, ‚ÄúAnd I say, ‚ÄėDon‚Äôt say it, because they‚Äôll never write it.¬†They‚Äôll never write it.‚Äô¬†‚ÄĚ Even with a worthy success, Trump exaggerated his Administration‚Äôs achievements and then complained that it did not get adequate recognition for them. Trump concluded the meeting with a statement about additional homecomings. ‚ÄúCongratulations to everybody. Keep it going,‚ÄĚ he said.¬†‚ÄúWe have some other ones going right now that nobody knows about, but we‚Äôre going to pull it off.‚ÄĚ Let‚Äôs hope that his words, unseemly or not, prove true.