Democracy Dies in Darkness


‘He threw a fit’: Trump’s anger over Iran deal forced aides to scramble for a compromise

By Anne Gearan

October 11, 2017 at 9:45 PM

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, second from right, pose for photographs with the University of Utah ski team during an event with NCAA championship teams at the White House.
President Trump visits the U.S. Capitol to meet with Republicans on the day the House will be voting on its tax bill.
Trump speaks about his Asia trip in the diplomatic reception room of the White House.
President Trump receives a bomber jacket from Air Force personnel during an event at Yokota Air Base at Fussa, near Tokyo.
Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold up hats they have both signed that read “Donald and Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater” at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Japan.
Trump and Abe meet with their wives Melania Trump and Akie Abe for a dinner at a restaurant in Tokyo.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump, accompanied by Adm. Harry Harris, left, and his wife Bruni Bradley, throw flower pedals while visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii.
First lady Melania Trump listens as President Trump speaks with reporters at the White House before departing from the South Lawn in Marine One for a trip to Asia.
President Trump, flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump pose for a photo with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family during Halloween celebrations at the White House.
Trump departs in his motorcade after an afternoon at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va.
President Trump hands out candy to children of journalists and White House staffers for Halloween in the Oval Office.
Trump holds up a presidential memorandum to declare the opioid crisis a national public-health emergency after signing it at the White House.
President Trump takes questions from reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on his way to Marine One before departing for Texas to attend a briefing on hurricane relief efforts.
President Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pose with winners from the National Minority Enterprise Development Week Awards Program in the Oval Office of the White House.
A protester throws Russian flags as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center left, walks with President Trump to the Senate Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill.
Trump bestows the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, to retired Army Capt. Gary M. Rose, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Trump and Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, shake hands during a joint statement in the Rose Garden.
Boeing Executive Vice President Kevin McAllister, right, and Singapore Airlines chief executive Goh Choon Phong, along with Trump and Singapore Prime Minister Loong, attend a signing ceremony for airplane sales at the White House.
Trump, with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster by his side, shakes hands with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in the Oval Office.
Trump, center right, and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico, center left, and others meet in the Oval Office.
Trump, right, listens as Rosselló speaks in the Oval Office.
Trump, flanked by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), speaks during a meeting with members of the Senate Finance Committee and members of his economic team in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Trump waits at the West Wing of the White House for the arrival of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
Trump meets with Tsipras in the Oval Office.
Trump answers a reporter’s question during a news conference with Tsipras in the White House Rose Garden.
Trump talks with Hope Hicks, White House communications director, between radio interviews at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Trump makes a statement on Iran policy in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House.
Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, speaks to the news media on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump prepares to hand the pen he used to sign an executive order on health care to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.
Trump congratulates Kirstjen Nielsen after nominating her to be secretary of homeland security in the East Room of the White House.
Trump shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, left, and first lady Melania Trump look on from the Oval Office of the White House.
Trump speaks in Middletown, Pa.
Trump honors the NHL’s Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the East Room of the White House.
Trump departs Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va.
Trump speaks at a Hispanic Heritage Month event in the East Room of the White House as Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, left, first lady Melania Trump and Treasurer Jovita Carranza listen.
Trump holds up the signed National Manufacturing Day Proclamation in the Oval Office.
Trump speaks during a briefing with senior military leaders at the White House.
Trump speaks as he and the first lady meet with first responders at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Trump talks with residents during a walking tour with the first lady in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the island.
Trump makes a statement about the mass shooting in Las Vegas from the Diplomatic Room at the White House.
Trump speaks to the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington.
Trump stops to greet people as he walks from the Oval Office to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump takes a group photo with members of the National Security Council on the steps of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds.
Trump shakes hands with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy during a meeting in the Oval Office.
Trump and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hold a joint a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House.
Trump speaks before signing a memorandum to expand access to STEM, science technology engineering and math, education, in the Oval Office.
Trump greets Sen. Luther Strange at a campaign rally for the Republican in Huntsville, Ala.
Trump meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Palace Hotel in New York.
Trump arrives with first lady Melania Trump, right, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Trump speaks during the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Trump encourages Frank “FX” Giaccio, left, as his father, Greg Giaccio, looks on while he mows the lawn in the Rose Garden of the White House. Trump accepted Giaccio’s offer after he wrote to the president saying it would be an “honor to mow the White House lawn.”
The Trumps and Vice President Pence tour Naples Estates, an area in Florida damaged by Hurricane Irma.
The Trumps participate in a moment of silence at the White House in remembrance of those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Trump and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis greet members of the military after a Sept. 11 memorial service at the Pentagon.
The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, and Trump hold translation earphones as a reporter asks a question at a news conference in the East Room of the White House.
Trump and Pence meet with House and Senate leaders at the White House.
Trump speaks alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as they hold a meeting about tax overhaul in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Trump waves as he departs St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington with first lady Melania Trump after they attended services for a national “Day of Prayer” for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Assistant rector D. Andrew Olivo is at center.
Trump gives a little girl a kiss as he and the first lady greet Harvey evacuees in Houston.
The first lady and the vice president look on as the president holds up a FEMA damage-assessment map of Texas.
Trump holds up the Texas state flag after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Harvey relief efforts at a fire station where people gathered to welcome him in Corpus Christi.
Trump shakes hands with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto during their joint news conference in Washington.
Trump shows his signature after signing the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act into law at the American Legion convention in Reno, Nev.
Trump participates in a tour of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Yuma, Ariz.
Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, looks up toward the solar eclipse without glasses from a balcony at the White House.
At the White House, Trump displays a memorandum he signed addressing China’s trade practices.
At his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Trump speaks about the violent protests in Charlottesville, that turned deadly.
Trump attends a workforce-development discussion at his club in Bedminster, N.J. From left: senior adviser Jared Kushner, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the president, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, aide Andrew Bremberg and Ivanka Trump.
Trump speaks to reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster in Bedminster.
Trump and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, center, talk with a patient via a tablet during the “telehealth” event.
Trump, flanked by Sens. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.), left, and David Perdue (R-Ga.), speaks in the Roosevelt Room during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Trump shake hands after Kelly’s private swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office.
Police applaud a line by Trump during remarks about his proposed government effort against the MS-13 gang at a gathering of federal, state and local law enforcement officials in Brentwood, N.Y.
Trump presents the Medal of Valor to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner during the ceremony honoring first responders at the shooting that took place during a Republican baseball team practice in Alexandria, Va.
Trump greets, from left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Terry Gou, chief executive of Foxconn, in the East Room of the White House after announcing the first U.S. assembly plant for the electronics giant.
Trump and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri walk to the Rose Garden of the White House for a joint news conference.
Trump waves to the Boy Scout troops and leaders assembled at the group’s national jamboree in West Virginia.
Trump and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), second from left, stand for the colors during the commissioning ceremony of the “supercarrier” USS Gerald R. Ford in Norfolk.
Trump greets guests during a meeting in the Oval Office with survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Photo Gallery: A look at the second half, so far, of the president?s first year in the White House.

President Trump was livid. Why, he asked his advisers in mid-July, should he go along with what he considered the failed Obama-era policy toward Iran and prop up an international nuclear deal he saw as disastrous?

He was incensed by the arguments of Secretary of State Rex ­Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others that the landmark 2015 deal, while flawed, offered stability and other benefits. He did not want to certify to Congress that the agreement remained in the vital U.S. national security interest and that Iran was meeting its obligations. He did not think either was true.

"He threw a fit," said one person familiar with the meeting. ". . . He was furious. Really furious. It's clear he felt jammed."

So White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior advisers came up with a plan — one aimed at accommodating Trump's loathing of the Iran deal as "an embarrassment" without killing it outright.

To get Trump, in other words, to compromise.

Watch more!
President Trump spoke about the agreement with Iran on their nuclear program when meeting with military leaders on Oct. 5. (The Washington Post)

"McMaster realized we just cannot come back here next time with a binary option — certify or decertify," an exercise Congress requires every 90 days, said a person familiar with the July discussion. "He put his team to work on a range of other options, including a decertification option that would involve Congress" and would not immediately break the deal.

That effort — described by seven people familiar with the debate, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the confidential discussions — led to a revamping of the U.S. approach to Iran and the nuclear pact Trump is set to announce this week and which congressional leaders were briefed about Wednesday. Under the expected announcement, Trump will declare the deal is not in the U.S. national interest while stopping short of recommending renewed nuclear sanctions.

The deliberations show the extent to which Trump's national security team in recent months has been occupied with navigating the future of the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump repeatedly vowed to throw out as a "disaster" during the campaign. The sometimes angry internal debate also provides another illustration of the way in which Trump's gut impulses and desire for dramatic action have often collided with the subtlety of international diplomacy.

Related: [Trump plans to declare that Iran nuclear deal is not in the national interest]

The Iran agreement, brokered by President Barack Obama, was never designed to do many of the things Trump criticizes it for lacking. Many of his own advisers — and many Republican leaders and key U.S. allies — see it as a valuable tool in stopping an Iranian nuclear bomb.

The solution is a compromise that retains the agreement but also puts Iran and U.S. allies on notice that Trump is willing to walk away. Meanwhile, Trump is likely to make the case that as the Islamic State terrorist group is weakened, Iran is reasserting itself as the most destructive influence in the Middle East and using the nuclear deal as cover to do so.

"He doesn't want to certify the Iran deal for more domestic reasons than international ones," said Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "He doesn't want to certify that any piece of the Obama strategy is working."

Watch more!
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Oct. 10 that the president will speak about his strategy on Iran later in the week. (Reuters)

Trump is expected to announce new conditions for U.S. participation in the agreement among the U.S., Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China and punt the issue to Congress. He may also announce new sanctions or penalties on Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"You can do both," Trump said Wednesday when asked about certifying or rejecting the deal.

He said he would announce his plan "very shortly," adding in an interview with Fox News, "It's a horrible, horrible embarrassment to our country, and we did it out of weakness, when actually we had great strength."

"We are on a tightrope. We don't know what will happen," said one Western diplomat worried that Trump's action will undermine the international agreement.

As a practical matter, Trump's expected move will place the onus on Congress to decide what to do next. Working with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a leading congressional hawk on Iran, the White House would refrain from recommending that Congress reimpose nuclear sanctions that were suspended under the deal.

That would buy time for new legislation codifying Trump's conditions for remaining in the deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a Republican congressional aide said. It would also increase U.S. leverage with European allies who don't want to renegotiate the deal, said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Trump has not yet announced his plan.

Related: [It’s up to Congress to keep or kill the Iran nuclear deal. Here’s how lawmakers could do either.]

"To get us on the right foot on the Iran strategy, we do need to use this certification decision, this moment, to launch a real effort to plug the holes and the weaknesses in the JCPOA," the aide said.

"We need to send the message that the president does not feel constrained by the JCPOA and does not feel beholden to it" while seeking an extension of the deal's restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities and other modifications.

Cotton laid out that approach in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations this month, in which he accused Iran of harming U.S. interests in the Middle East and scheming to preserve its ability to eventually produce a bomb.

The speaker and the setting were clear signals that the Iran hard-
liner would block for Trump in two ways. By holding off on new sanctions that would bust the deal, Cotton helps Trump rebuff the claim of sabotage from Democrats and other parties to the agreement. And because of his history of advocating tough measures against Iran, he may help protect the White House from criticism by conservatives who want to do away with the deal.

"It would give a few months' or years' lead time to give time to get U.S. allies on board with the same restrictions — a unified front that will put lots of pressure on the Iranians" to reopen the deal, the aide said.

Britain, France and Germany, along with the European Union's foreign policy chief, have argued to Congress and the Trump administration that the deal cannot be redone. Iran has said the same.

The pivotal moment in the administration's Iran debate came July 17, when the president balked when presented with the recommendation of his national security advisers that he should submit the July congressional certification. He argued with aides, forcing a postponement of a planned announcement and a rewriting of White House talking points.

The decision was clumsily announced that evening, hours before a legal deadline, along with a declaration Trump planned to toughen expectations and enforcement.

The administration announced new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program the following day. But only sanctions related to the country's disputed nuclear program are covered by the 2015 deal. Iran claims that it has never sought a nuclear weapon and that its nuclear research and development is intended for medicine and energy.

The first certification of Trump's presidency came in April, when Trump was also reluctant but agreed on the grounds the administration was just beginning a review of its Iran strategy and would wait for major decisions, the people familiar with the debate said.

By July, the president's frustration was evident. He made it clear that he felt strong-armed and that the July certification would be his last, several people familiar with the discussion said.

Trump took the internal confrontation public in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in which he said he regretted the decision. The experience also further soured Trump on Tillerson, who he complained consistently came forward with only "totally conventional" approaches to foreign policy problems, people familiar with Trump's thinking have said.

Related: [A ‘pressure cooker’: Trump’s frustration and fury rupture alliances, threaten agenda]

It would fall to Tillerson and the State Department to try to negotiate new terms for the Iran deal, and ally after ally has bent his ear with arguments that the deal should be preserved as it is.

"The nuclear deal was a crucial agreement that neutralized its nuclear threat," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Tuesday, following a telephone call with Tillerson. "The U.K. supports the deal and stresses the importance of all parties continuing to uphold their commitments."

Tillerson joined all of Trump's other top national security advisers in recommending last month that Trump decertify the deal as part of a strategy some refer to as "decertify, pressure and fix."

As Trump officials briefed lawmakers Wednesday, two Obama administration architects of the deal, former secretary of state John F. Kerry and former energy secretary Ernest Moniz, were also on Capitol Hill arguing in defense of the original agreement.

Congress may now do away with the requirement that the president recommit to the deal every 90 days, something that skeptical lawmakers of both parties mandated when Obama negotiated the agreement.

Karoun Demirjian and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

Read more:

Related: What you need to know about the Iran nuclear deal

Related: As a general, Mattis urged action against Iran. As a defense secretary, he may be a voice of caution.

Anne Gearan is a White House reporter for The Washington Post.

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