Presidents on the brink of war tend to rely on an array of Oval Office assets: teams of experienced advisers, trusted sources of intelligence, strong ties with U.S. allies and credibility with the broad American public.
Trump’s decision to approve an airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, came at a moment in his presidency when his national security team has been depleted by waves of departures and distracted by months of impeachment hearings before Congress.
But even before the Ukraine crisis, Trump had spent much of his first three years in office attacking critical capabilities ordinarily cultivated by commanders in chief: He has disparaged U.S. intelligence agencies, disrupted relationships with European partners and diluted the power of the bully pulpit with thousands of falsehoods.
In many ways, Trump’s approach to the presidency adds to the uncertainty of an increasingly volatile situation in the Middle East, with the administration deploying thousands of additional troops to the region even as Iran vows to take revenge with attacks on unspecified American targets.
Former U.S. national security officials described the situation as worrisome in part because of Iran’s capabilities but also because of Trump’s tendency to ignore advisers and favor instinct over hard information.
“That’s going to be a problem going forward if this situation deteriorates,” said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA. Trump and members of his Cabinet with critical roles in a potential conflict with Iran have two defining qualities, McLaughlin said: “low credibility and limited experience.”
So far, Trump appears to be leaning heavily on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for guidance on the decision to target Soleimani and the strike’s aftermath, as well as making the public case that the operation was warranted.
Pompeo is the longest-standing member of Trump’s inner circle, having served as CIA director before moving to the State Department. He is also regarded as a credible voice among conservatives, including in foreign policy circles otherwise skeptical of Trump.
Even so, the administration’s initial statements about the airstrike — including those made by Pompeo in a string of television appearances and calls to foreign counterparts — have at times been contradictory and greeted with skepticism.
In a television interview on Friday, Pompeo repeatedly emphasized that the decision to target Soleimani was driven by U.S. intelligence assessments warning of “imminent” danger to American lives overseas.
Members of Congress emerged from private briefings with U.S. intelligence officials on Friday saying they heard nothing to suggest that the threat posed by the paramilitary forces led or guided by Soleimani had changed substantially in recent months.
More broadly, Pompeo asserted that “the world is a safer place today,” even as Americans were urged to evacuate from Iraq, and that the strike had decreased the chance of conflict with Iran, even as thousands of additional American troops were reportedly being rushed to the Middle East.
Pompeo’s elevated standing in the Cabinet is in part a reflection of the stream of departures from the administration’s upper ranks. Former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who served as a Marine general in Iraq and Afghanistan, resigned a year ago. Trump has also gone through three national security advisers, including former lieutenant general Michael Flynn, former lieutenant general H.R. McMaster and John Bolton.
The current national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, stepped into the job in late September as the impeachment investigation was accelerating in the House. He is a lawyer who served in the U.S. Army Reserve with little known expertise on Iran or the Middle East.
Turmoil within the National Security Council has further eroded critical areas of expertise, including counterterrorism, officials said.
U.S. officials fear that Iran may seek to retaliate for Soleimani’s death by using its networks of paramilitary proxies in Iraq and Syria, or its links to terrorist groups including Hezbollah. If so, coordinating the counterterrorism efforts of the CIA, FBI and other agencies could prove critical to safeguarding potential American targets.
But the top counterterrorism official at the NSC was installed in the job late last year and has less experience than many of his predecessors. Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), also has a strained relationship with the CIA and FBI, current and former officials said, in part because of his involvement in efforts by Trump and his allies to discredit those agencies and accuse them of seeking to undermine the president.
Trump has spent much of his presidency attacking U.S. spy agencies, rejecting their conclusions on critical national security issues ranging from Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election to the complicity of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
And yet Trump and other officials have pinned the decision to target Soleimani on intelligence from the same agencies the president so frequently disparages. “The risk of doing nothing was enormous,” Pompeo said Friday on CNN. “Intelligence community made that assessment and President Trump acted decisively last night.”
In explaining his reluctance to trust U.S. spy agencies, Trump has often pointed to the erroneous assessments they made 17 years ago that Iraq had stockpiles of banned weapons — judgments cited by President George W. Bush as a rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Those faulty prewar claims have had a lasting impact on American credibility in the Middle East and beyond. Trump’s penchant for making false or exaggerated claims — something he has done more than 15,000 times while in office, according to a tally by The Washington Post — has likely compounded that credibility gap.
McLaughlin recalled a famous episode in the Cold War when President John F. Kennedy dispatched Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state, to Paris to brief French President Charles de Gaulle on the U.S. discovery of Soviet attempts to install missiles in Cuba.
Acheson brought satellite images to show de Gaulle, but the French president — reportedly miffed that he was merely being “informed” about the development rather than “consulted” on any U.S. response — waved the photos away, saying that the word of the president was sufficient.
“That’s not going to happen with Trump,” McLaughlin said.
U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read
Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.
What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.
Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.
How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.
What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.
Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question or read previous Q&As with Post reporters.