Confusion over whether Trump was bluffing with an aborted military strike is compounded by political intrigues inside the West Wing and the president’s own ambivalence over the wisdom of going to war.
n Friday morning, Donald Trump sought to explain away his stunning decision the night before to order a military strike on Iran, only to change course just minutes before it was carried out. In a confusing series of tweets, the president confirmed that the military was “cocked & loaded” to hit Iran in retaliation for the downing of an American drone, but then had second thoughts. “I asked, how many will die,” Trump claimed. “150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it. Not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone,” he wrote.
Trump’s about-face reportedly caught administration officials off guard, one of whom told the New York Times that “planes were in the air and ships were in position.” Still, it is hard to divine what the president actually intended to do, or whether his own account of his decision to stand down is accurate. One possibility is that the events of Thursday night were an attempt to scare the Iranians to the negotiating table, similar to how Trump claimed to be on the verge of raining “fire and fury” on North Korea before pivoting to a courtship of Kim Jong Un. Trump, after all, seems characterologically disposed to dealmaking, or at least the appearance of dealmaking, over and above military action, which he loves to threaten but seems to loathe in practice.
Reuters provides some evidence for this theory, reporting later Friday that the president had sent an overnight warning to Tehran, via officials in Oman. “In his message, Trump said he was against any war with Iran and wanted to talk to Tehran about various issues,” an Iranian official said, adding that Trump gave them a small window to respond. In this accounting, the Iranians conveyed to their Omani counterparts that any such decision would be up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Trump, his bluff called, backed off anyway and canceled the airstrike.
The difficulty in determining who is less trustworthy here—the Trump administration or Tehran—is compounded by political intrigues inside the West Wing, where hawks including Trump national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been countered by outside advisers including the non-interventionist Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has reportedly been urging restraint. Politico reports that Trump wants to cut a deal with the Iranians that would presumably be similar to, but stricter than, the nuclear accord Obama signed in 2015. But given the eagerness for war within his own party, critics fear that the president’s saber-rattling will be misconstrued, backfire, or otherwise escalate uncontrollably. “The place we have arrived at tonight on Iran is Donald Trump’s choice,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy tweeted Thursday. “He chose escalation over diplomacy, without any idea how to get out of the downward spiral he set in motion.”
The proximate cause of the aborted U.S. airstrike was Iran’s attack this week on an unmanned American aircraft—the two sides disagree on whether the drone violated Iranian airspace—but tensions actually began a year earlier, when Trump took a sledgehammer to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, claiming that it provided inadequate limits on Tehran’s behavior in the region. The Trump administration also claimed that Iran wasn’t adhering to the terms of the deal, despite international watchdogs concluding that it was. Tensions mounted last week when the United States accused Iran of sabotaging two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
“Iran made a very big mistake!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning, after the U.S. drone was shot down. Later, during an Oval Office meeting with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Trump suggested that perhaps the attack had been an actual mistake on Iran’s part, attributable to a rogue officer. But he also refused to rule out the possibility of war. Asked by a reporter if the U.S. response could include a military strike, Trump answered: “You’ll find out.”
By Thursday evening, he was apparently prepared to deliver on his threats. Officials told the Times that Trump approved strikes on a number of Iranian targets and that, as of 7 p.m. Thursday, military officials were expecting the action to move forward. But Trump abruptly called off the operation as it was getting underway.
Trump’s explanation Friday morning did little to allay concerns that he’s flying by the seat of his pants, and that the U.S. could be hurtling toward another devastating war. Trump, of course, may think he’s playing 3-D chess here, engaging in a little Art of the Deal-style diplomacy. Before becoming friendly with Kim Jong Un, the president spent a year taunting him with threats of “fire and fury” and a vow to “totally destroy” North Korea. Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang actually followed a diplomatic push by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump’s takeaway seemed to be that wild threats and brinkmanship are the best ways to get what you want.
It’s difficult to say where he’ll go from here. Trump is hoping for talks, though it’s not clear he’d be able to get a deal more to his liking than the one Obama struck in 2015. Per Politico, administration officials say Trump is seeking longer-term restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. But Iran has little reason to trust the Trump administration after it pulled out of the nuclear accord, and has made clear that it isn’t interested in talking.
With confusion reigning and possible conflict looming, Democrats have called for Trump to cool tensions—and to seek congressional approval for any military action he might take. “We must do everything we can not to escalate the situation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, according to the Washington Post. “One of the best ways to avoid bumbling into war, a war that nobody wants, is to have a robust open debate and for Congress to have a real say,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer added. “We learned that lesson in the run-up to Iraq.”