Donald Trump has branded a retired navy Seal critical of his presidency a “Hillary Clinton fan” who should have taken down Osama bin Laden sooner.
The attack on William McRaven, who oversaw the operation to catch the al-Qaeda leader in 2011, is the latest in an escalating war of words between the US president and former military and intelligence officials.
“He’s a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer and frankly, wouldn’t it have been nice if we’d have got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that?” the US president said in an interview with Fox News Sunday.
“Think of this… living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan in what I guess they considered a nice mansion – I don’t know, I’ve seen nicer – but living in Pakistan right next to the military academy.
“Everybody in Pakistan knew he was there and we give Pakistan $1.3bn (£1bn) a year, and they don’t tell him?”
Mr McRaven, former head of US Special Operations Command, had described Mr Trump’s “enemy of the people” jibe against much of the media as “the greatest threat to democracy” the US faces.
The pair’s clash comes three months after Mr Trump took the unprecedented step of revoking a former CIA director’s security clearance over criticism the president did not like. In an open letter, dozens of former intelligence officials condemned the move against John Brennan as “an attempt to stifle free speech”.
Later on Sunday, Mr McRaven stood by his past criticism of the president.
“I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else,” Mr McRaven 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.”
Mr Trump’s comments also sparked condemnation from a number of high profile military figures.
“The least noble American, Cadet Bonespurs @realDonaldTrump, has resumed his unconscionable attack on one of our most noble – Admiral McRaven – who continues to serve America with dignity and his keen sense of history,” Paul Eaton, a retired major general, wrote on Twitter.
Mark Hertling, a former officer who served 37 years in the US army, said: “Bill McRaven doesn’t need anyone to defend him. He’s lived a life of service to country and faced only the toughest challenges.
“The president’s words are an attempt to further divide the country and politicize the military. We shouldn’t allow it to work.”
On Monday, Mr Trump doubled down on his Bin Laden claims.
“Of course we should have captured Osama Bin Laden long before we did. I pointed him out in my book just BEFORE the attack on the World Trade Center,” Mr Trump wrote regarding his 2000 book The America We Deserve.
“President Clinton famously missed his shot,” he continued, an apparent reference to Bill Clinton revealing he passed up an opportunity to kill Bin Laden because it would have meant destroying a town in Afghanistan.
“We paid Pakistan Billions of Dollars & they never told us he was living there. Fools!
“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!”
When asked by host Chris Wallace how “dark” his mood is following disappointing midterm elections for Republicans, Mr Trump insisted it was “very light” and that reports he was angry were “disgusting fake news”.
Mr Trump next criticised two of his own senior officials, hinting both Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of homeland security, and chief of staff John Kelly could soon be out of jobs.
“I want her to get much tougher and we’ll see what happens,” he said of Ms Nielsen when asked about her White House prospects.
Discussing Mr Kelly, Mr Trump said there were “certain things” about the retired marine general’s performance he did not like, adding: “John at some point is gonna wanna move on.”
Elsewhere in the interview Mr Trump claimed variously he was unaware his acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, was a vocal critic of the Mueller investigation; that he did not want to hear the tape recording of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by a Saudi hit squad because it is a “suffering tape”; and that Republicans had “won” the midterm elections, despite historic losses in the House.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies