The increasingly chaotic aftermath of the US strike against Iran has left President Donald Trump’s team scrambling to keep up with his unpredictable decisions and inflammatory pronouncements, and suggests dysfunction at the heart of the nation’s critical national security process.
Top Trump aides are making frantic efforts to justify the killing of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top leaders, and are bracing for a possible reprisal attack as the Islamic Republic moves around military hardware. But they are still refusing to publicly offer Americans details of the “imminent” attacks that they said the top general was planning.
A farcical episode on Monday when at one point it seemed the military had announced it was pulling back troops from Iraq — then said it made a mistake — painted an unflattering picture of the administration’s decision-making process. And top officials have twice had to rule out Trump’s warning that he could strike at “cultural” targets in Iran if it tries to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Such action could amount to war crimes.
The churn in Washington and growing questions over the rationale for an escalation that some fear could lead the US and Iran closer to war is complicating Trump’s hopes of presenting a clean narrative that he acted decisively to eliminate a terrorist mastermind and to save the lives of hundreds of Americans.
The controversy is mounting at the same time as a fierce dispute over impeachment intensifies, making for a combustible mood on Capitol Hill.
Both dramas — Trump’s hardline policy against Iran and his alleged coaxing of Ukraine for political favors that led to impeachment — highlight his propensity to resist curbs on his power. It also reveals how the credibility of the administration — a priceless commodity at a time of national emergency — has been eroded by the President’s documented record of repeated lying. At the moment when Trump needs Americans to believe him, it is not surprising there is reticence among his critics in Congress to take his thin explanations for the Soleimani attack at face value.
Confusion may also have something to do with the relative lack of experience in Trump’s national security cabinet — which the President has hollowed out by removing more substantial figures, such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who pushed back against his impulses or were more wedded to traditional national security policies.
Trump’s press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who has noticeably not given any briefings from the White House briefing room, did venture into the friendlier surroundings of Fox News. During an interview there, she insisted that the President was on top of the fallout from the killing of Soleimani. She rebuked Democrats for not “celebrating” Soleimani’s demise. Asked about possible counter-strikes from Iran, Grisham replied: “That’s not something that we would know about, but we’re definitely ready for it.”
“The country should feel good that this President is not going to let anything happen to anybody,” Grisham said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, due to brief members of Congress on the strikes in the next few days, again refused on Tuesday to provide public evidence of the imminence of the attacks that the administration has said Soleimani was planning before he was killed in a drone strike at a Baghdad airport.
“We could see clearly everything Soleimani has done,” Pompeo said, pointing to Iran’s influence in Lebanon and other countries in the region where he said Tehran has denied people “sovereignty and freedom.”
Trump: ‘We’re safer’
The President insisted on Monday that the drone strike at the Baghdad airport that killed Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, should have been carried out years ago by previous administrations.
“We’re a lot safer because of it,” Trump told conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. As Americans brace for a reprisal strikes from its enemy of 40 years, the President seemed unperturbed.
“We’ll see what the response is, if any,” he said.
The White House says that the killing Soleimani may have saved hundreds of US lives and point to his role masterminding Iran’s network of radical proxy groups and developing weaponry that helped militias kill hundreds of US troops in the Iraq war.
But Democrats complained that the administration has provided only classified material about the attack, which critics fear could spark a war with Iran. They want Trump to give a full public accounting.
“I’ve become increasingly alarmed about the strike,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said. “A strike that was carried out with insufficient transparency, without consultation of Congress and without a clear plan for what comes next.”
Even one of Trump’s sometime golf partners — Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is often troubled by US military action abroad — raised concerns about what happens next.
“The death of Soleimani, I think, is the death of diplomacy,” Paul said. “I see only military escalation from here. I see no way out.”
But Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was no reason to doubt Soleimani’s intent.
“I’ve seen words like, ‘Oh, the intelligence is razor thin,’ ” Miller told reporters. “I will stand by the intelligence I saw, that it was compelling, it was imminent, and it was very, very clear in scale, scope.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced a vote this week on a War Powers Resolution designed to limit Trump’s power to conduct military operations against Iran for more than 30 days.
As massive crowds gathered in Iran at Soleimani’s funeral rites, the Supreme Leader’s military adviser told CNN that Iran would hit back at US military sites.
Thousands of US troops are vulnerable in the Middle East. In a sign of readiness, the US planned to deploy six B-52 bombers for Iran operations to the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
But a mix-up over the status of US troops in Iraq, after the country’s Parliament voted to expel them, sparked questions about the administration’s strategic coherence.
In a letter, the Defense Department told the Iraqi Defense Ministry that it was repositioning some troops and said, “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”
But Milley called the letter a “mistake” and said was “poorly worded” because it implied a withdrawal that was not happening.
In another sign of disarray, Defense Secretary Mark Esper contradicted Trump’s two assertions that the US could bomb cultural sites in Iran.
“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Esper told CNN, when asked about attacks that could amount to war crimes if they were conducted.
Heat rises over impeachment
It is a sign of the turmoil that habitually rages in Washington during the Trump administration that lawmakers are wrapped up in an impeachment controversy even as war drums beat.
Bolton’s announcement that he was now ready to appear at a Senate trial was greeted as a triumph by Democrats after Pelosi delayed sending over voted-on articles of impeachment against Trump to challenge the GOP reluctance to call witnesses.
“I have concluded that, if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify.” Bolton said in a statement.
The development was a political boost for Democrats because it allowed them to argue that a GOP refusal to allow witness testimony would be tantamount to suppressing the truth.
“If any Senate Republican opposes issuing subpoenas to the four witnesses and documents we’ve requested they would make it absolutely clear they are participating in a cover up in one of the most sacred duties we have in this Congress, in this Senate, and that is to keep a president in check,” Schumer said.
Republican sources however suggested that the Bolton breakthrough would not cause McConnell to budge from his position that the trial must start before a decision is made on witnesses.
Trump allies in the Senate are still staunchly opposed to continuing to investigate his pressure on Ukraine for dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, arguing it is not their chamber’s job to improve the House’s case.
“If the House wants to start a new impeachment inquiry or pull it back and add additional elements to it, that’s their choice to make,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said.
His colleague, Sen. John Kennedy from Louisiana, warned that “most rational people would want to avoid getting pulled into the middle of this sequel to Pulp Fiction.”
Democrats are seeking to press moderate Republican senators in the hope they will vote to call witnesses.
Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney said “of course” he’d like to hear what Bolton had to say.
The former national security adviser called the President’s personal lawyer and Ukraine fixer Rudy Giuliani a “hand grenade” that was going to blow everyone up, according to sworn testimony from another witness.