Days after U.S.-backed forces drove the Islamic State from its capital in Raqqa, Syria, President Trump has yet to take the kind of victory lap he initiated after scores of less significant achievements unfolded on his watch as experts continue to debate whether he or his predecessor deserves more credit for decimating the terrorist group.
The president waited until Saturday to issue an official statement on the success of American-supported efforts to drive the Islamic State from Raqqa, and his words came in the form of a formal press release than a characteristic social media screed or comments to a reporter.
"I am pleased to announce that the Syrian Democratic Forces, our partners in the fight against ISIS in Syria, have successfully recaptured Raqqah – the terrorist group's self-proclaimed capital city. Together, our forces have liberated the entire city from ISIS control," Trump said in a statement circulated by the White House on Saturday. "The defeat of ISIS in Raqqah represents a critical breakthrough in our worldwide campaign to defeat ISIS and its wicked ideology. With the liberation of ISIS's capital and the vast majority of its territory, the end of the ISIS caliphate is in sight."
Trump's statement did not mention his predecessor by name, but referred indirectly to the relative progress his own administration had made.
"One of my core campaign promises to the American people was to defeat ISIS and to counter the spread of hateful ideology. That is why, in the first days of my administration, I issued orders to give our commanders and troops on the ground the full authorities to achieve this mission," Trump said. "As a result, ISIS strongholds in Mosul and Raqqah have fallen. We have made, alongside our coalition partners, more progress against these evil terrorists in the past several months than in the past several years."
The liberation of Raqqa on Tuesday marked a watershed moment in the fight against the Islamic State, which first entrenched itself in the city that would become its operational and symbolic headquarters in 2013. While former President Barack Obama presided over much of the military build-up in Syria that preceded Raqqa's recapture, Trump adjusted tactics in the region in ways that some argue helped U.S.-backed forces reach a goal this week that they had spent years pursuing.
"I would say that President Trump deserves credit for removing many of the politically-oriented restrictions that were placed on U.S. military action by the Obama administration," said James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.
"In particular, the Obama administration had restricted airstrikes against ISIS in order to prevent civilian deaths and had put so many restrictions on them that the air campaign had the most restrictive rules of engagement of any air campaign in U.S. history," Phillips added.
The Pentagon under Obama took pains to avoid killing anyone outside the Islamic State as the U.S. joined a coalition working to wipe out the group's caliphate.
For example, American planes dropped leaflets on trucks carrying stolen oil for the Islamic State in the hopes that drivers would read the warnings and flee their vehicles so the U.S. could bomb them.
Critics also accused the Obama administration of requiring White House approval for minute military operations, preventing commanders from making quick decisions.
Trump, however, loosened the rules of engagement and delegated more authority to his generals and commanders on the ground shortly after taking office. His supporters say those changes accelerated gains against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
"The idea of avoiding civilian casualties was a good one, but it was taken to ridiculous lengths and it allowed ISIS to kill a lot more civilians, because they were still pumping oil, they were still attracting an enormous flow of foreign volunteers," Phillips said. "While it's true that the Trump administration did inherit some policies that were important for defeating ISIS from its predecessor, it's also true that the Trump administration injected a much stronger sense of urgency and moved away from micromanaging the war from the White House."
The president contended on Tuesday the role that his oversight of the military has played in hollowing out the Islamic extremist group that first surged under his predecessor.
"I totally changed rules of engagement. I totally changed our military, I totally changed the attitudes of the military and they have done a fantastic job," Trump said during an interview with radio host Chris Plante.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had attributed earlier successes against the Islamic State to Trump's directions, telling reporters in May that Trump had helped U.S.-backed forces beat the group's fighters into retreat in many areas.
"He directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS," Mattis said during a May 19 press conference.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford noted, during the same press conference, that Trump's decision to arm Syrian Kurds in the battle to retake Raqqa had put even more pressure on the Islamic State. Although Obama formulated and strongly considered a plan to arm Kurdish fighters there, nearby Turkey lobbied hard against the strategy due to its own struggles with the Kurds.
The near-total collapse of the Islamic State in Raqqa this week was just the latest sign that a years-long effort to eliminate the group is at last succeeding.
U.S. and coalition airstrikes have helped Iraqi forces clear Islamic State strongholds throughout the country.
In July, Iraqi Security Forces wrested control of Mosul back from the Islamic State after a campaign that lasted nearly nine months. Mosul was the largest city run by the Islamic State, which captured it from the government of Iraq in 2014.
And earlier this month, roughly 1,000 Islamic State fighters surrendered when Iraqi forces successfully finished retaking Hawija, the terror group's last major bastion of control in Iraq.
Former Obama administration officials have argued the defeat of the Islamic State in its key strongholds was only made possible by the plans Trump's predecessor laid long before Election Day.
For example, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday that the Obama administration devised the strategy that allowed Syrian Democratic Forces to liberate Raqqa this week.
"The plan ... was laid out two years ago, and has been executed pretty much in the manner and the schedule that was foreseen then," Carter told CNN on Friday.
Despite the string of victories against a group Trump mentioned frequently on the campaign trail, the president has done relatively little to highlight specific wins in the war on the Islamic State. The day Raqqa was almost totally freed from the extremists, the White House was gearing up to fight what would become a weeklong controversy over Trump's comments on Gold Star families.
The deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger also complicated any bid to take credit for ISIS' setbacks, as the extremist group is generally held to be responsible.
As Iraqi forces were celebrating the liberation of Mosul this summer, Trump was struggling to escape a controversy over the revelation that his son had met with a Russian lawyer during the presidential race.
Brad Blakeman, a GOP strategist and former aide to President George W. Bush, said Trump should avoid celebrating the success in Raqqa until the outcome appears more stable.
The [president] knows how fragile the gains that have been made in Raqqa and the need to secure the areas that ISIS has been driven out of," Blakeman said. "The [president] deserves credit to the extent that he has taken the handcuffs off our military and pressed the Iraqis to step up more."
"Now is not the time to take victory laps," Blakeman added. "We have seen others do it — only to lose the ground that was won."