The lack of clear information continued late Tuesday in Washington, after Iran said it retaliated for Soleimani’s death with missile attacks on military bases in Iraq. The White House announced Trump would make no public remarks in response Tuesday night, nor would any other senior administration officials. Hours later, Trump tweeted that he would address the nation Wednesday morning. “All is well!” he declared.
“Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now,” Trump said. “So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”
Previously, Trump had caused an international uproar after threatening to attack dozens of Iranian cultural sites — only to retreat Tuesday following statements from his defense secretary and other officials dismissing such actions as illegal.
The Trump administration also was embarrassed after the Pentagon sent a letter to Iraqi officials this week stating the military would comply with the prime minister’s demand to pull U.S. troops out of the country, only to call it a draft copy released by mistake.
And Trump surprised his own aides by publicly threatening to enact sanctions on Iraq if U.S. troops are forced out of the country, while suggesting privately that he would consider reducing foreign aid to Baghdad, senior officials said. Vice President Pence is preparing a speech slated for next week on Iran policy, one official said, in an attempt to provide a more cohesive explanation of the president’s strategy.
The flurry of events has led to a sense of confusion in the White House and a lack of clarity around a highly sensitive operation that the administrations of his two predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, had chosen not to take due to risks that it could spark a regional war.
Allies, including Israel and several European powers, expressed discomfort with the military strike, with some objecting outright and complaining they were not consulted. Democrats on Capitol Hill cried foul over a lack of information from the administration, which began briefing key senators Tuesday.
The upshot was that a president who has taken pride in rejecting collaboration and institutional processes in favor of unilateral action and impulsiveness is facing his most severe test of that approach at a crucial moment — amid a growing national security crisis in an election year.
“A decision looks decisive and bold or impulsive and reckless often in retrospect based on the effects,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). “But if the administration did game out all of the potential consequences of this action, it’s not offering a huge amount of evidence publicly of what the fruits of that analysis were.”
Inside the White House, two administration officials conceded that some of Trump’s messages over the weekend were unhelpful. The aides pointed to Trump’s threat, first issued on Twitter, that the United States military would target 52 Iranian sites, including cultural ones, if Tehran retaliated for Soleimani’s death.
Pentagon officials had not analyzed potential cultural site targets before the president’s tweet, said one senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the geopolitical sensitivities.
Although administration aides, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, appeared to rule out such a move, suggesting it would violate international laws, the president initially reiterated his intent — before moderating his message during remarks in the Oval Office on Tuesday afternoon.
“We are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage,” Trump told reporters during a bilateral meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “And you know what, if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law. But think of it: They kill our people, they blow up our people, and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions. But I’m okay with it.”
Before Iran’s apparent retaliation, Trump argued to aides that the attack on Soleimani would be politically popular and that Iran would not “do anything too stupid,” in the words of one senior administration official who had spoken to the president. Republican lawmakers have mostly expressed support for the U.S. military operation and offered few signals they would seek to rein in Trump’s ability to confront Iran.
But the president’s critics pounced, with Democrats citing the messaging confusion as evidence that Trump had not developed a coordinated strategy ahead of time to deal with the fallout of the Soleimani strike. Coordination between Washington and Baghdad in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been suspended, raising additional risks to U.S. national security interests, experts said.
“For three years now, everyday Americans, members of this body, our diplomatic corps and our allies and adversaries alike have wondered whether there’s any sort of coherent strategy guiding the national security and foreign policy of President Donald Trump,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Tuesday. “If the events of recent days are any indication, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ ”
Trump’s allies acknowledged the risks while defending the unique approach of a president who won office by bucking Washington’s long-established protocols and the establishment orthodoxy of both major political parties.
“The common wisdom on Trump is that he’s incompetent,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor. “Iran is his opportunity to disprove that. If Iran doesn’t become a disaster, and the economy is good, Trump is untouchable in November. Trump has in effect bet his presidency on being able to contain an unstable Iran.”
Trump’s surprising decision to authorize the covert drone operation came after an attack from an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq killed an American contractor in that country. Mounting hostilities, including a U.S. military strike on the militia’s facilities, culminated with the militia, said to be under the direction of Soleimani, breaching the security around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Initially, Trump and his aides said the operation to kill Soleimani was justified because U.S. intelligence had learned of imminent attacks on U.S. facilities in the region that were being coordinated by the general.
But since then, administration officials have given varying accounts. Asked to provide more evidence of that intelligence Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the militia attacks ahead of Soleimani’s death.
A few hours later, Esper reiterated that there were new attacks being planned and pledged to brief lawmakers on the classified information.
The confusion could in part be viewed as a consequence of Trump’s decisions, over his first three years in office, to downgrade the role of his White House press secretary — there has been no formal briefing in more than 300 days — and of the National Security Council. Former U.S. officials have said that Trump’s NSC lacks the kind of rigorous vetting process that helped produce options for past presidents and helped them carry out their orders.
“People who have been in government or watched from outside have worried for a long time if, when a crisis develops, this administration will not be up to the challenge because they do not have the people or the processes in place,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who served as an arms control and nonproliferation expert on the NSC during Obama’s administration. “The decision to target Soleimani and deal with the aftermath is a terrific demonstration of that. The inability to coordinate messaging and communicate to congressional leadership and to allies effectively is a case study.”
Jeff Stein and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.