Trump’s Iran Shadow War

Donald Trump was right all along about the intelligence and national security establishment. They appear to have no idea who they are dealing with.

The President was spending the holiday in Florida, facing two looming threats to his reelection. First, there was the editorial in Christianity Today, a leading newspaper of the American evangelical Christian community, that called for his impeachment and removal from office. Mark Galli, the editor of the newspaper founded by Billy Graham — the Godfather of the modern evangelical movement — did not just decry the legality of Trump’s actions in Ukraine, but the immorality of his indifference to the constitutional constraints on the Presidency.

Galli’s piece struck at the heart — and the souls — of Donald Trump’s most loyal constituency. “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record,” the editorial concluded, “we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency.”

Ouch.

Then there was impeachment itself, which had been been voted by the House but not yet referred to the Senate. As much as Donald Trump, the politician, liked to tout impeachment as a boon to his reelection prospects, Donald Trump, the branding maven, loathed the prospect of the permanent scarlet letter that will forever be attached to his name.

Against that backdrop, the President’s national security team made the trek to Mar a Lago to brief the brooding President on options for dealing with growing Iranian-supported actions against the American presence in Iraq. For a number of months, Iranian-backed militias had been amping up rocket attacks against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops. Then, two weeks ago, the pattern of provocations came to a head, as Iranian-backed forces attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and a rocket launched targeting an Iraqi military facility killed an American contractor.

According to the New York Times, a number of options were offered to the President during the meeting in Florida, of which killing Qasem Soleimani was considered the most extreme. The fact that Pentagon and intelligence officials were taken by surprise when Trump gave the thumbs up to the targeted assassination suggests that they have not been paying attention to the man they serve.

For Trump — as well as Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo — the choice was easy. Threats to U.S. embassies in the Middle East push all kinds of buttons, for Republicans in particular. Donald Trump watched Jimmy Carter’s presidency crash and burn during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Both Trump and Mike Pompeo savaged Hillary Clinton for her handling of the attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Trump and Pompeo, in particular, were determined not to be taken down by one more embassy fiasco.

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And then there was the political backdrop. By the end of December, Trump was under pressure. Between impeachment and a fracturing evangelical community, the year had not ended well for the President. His need for a new story to change the news cycle was palpable.

Against that backdrop, something serious was required, and killing Qasem Soleimani fit the bill. Half measures would not take Mark Galli out of the news. Half measures would not assure that the evangelical community that was critical to his reelection remained fully on-side. Half measures would not sideline Nancy Pelosi. Once his national security team put killing a vilified, diabolical adversary on the list, how could they have expected that the President would have picked some lesser option?

While Trump’s affection for military hubris is evident — threats to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and destruction on Iran “the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” come to mind — the truth is that he has been torn from the outset of his presidency between his “Bernie Trump” persona, who rails against the trillions of dollars spent on “endless wars” and insists that it is time to bring U.S. troops home from across the globe, and his “Donald Cheney” persona, summed up succinctly by the three word definition of Trump doctrine offered by a senior White House official, “We’re America, Bitch.”

Critics of the President — particularly Republican hawks who have for years been itching for military action against Iran — have been dismayed by Trump’s Bernie Sanders tendencies. Sanctions, which have emerged as Trump’s preferred get-tough foreign policy tool, were the stuff of ridicule when proposed by Democrats in lieu of military engagement over the years. Those same Republican hawks — undoubtedly including Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton — saw the growing Iranian actions against U.S. forces in Iraq over the past months as rooted in Trump’s tendency to Talk Cheney but Act Bernie, which was evident most recently in his failure to respond aggressively to the Iranian missile attack against Saudi oil facilities this past September.

Driven by the political exigencies of the moment, Trump’s Dick Cheney side rose to the fore this time around. The proposed assassination would not be undertaken through some kind of covert operation, and there would be no effort to claim plausible deniability. For the killing of Soleimani to serve Trump’s purposes, he needed to be able to trumpet it to the world. And, more specifically, to his supporters at his rallies and on Twitter.

Since the moment of the attack, as fear of an escalating war with Iran gripped Washington, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have been demanding proof that the killing of Soleimani was a response to an imminent attack, as required under war powers doctrine for unilateral presidential action. Yet, from the moment of the attack, it has been evident that imminence played little if any role in the decision to go forward. Donald Trump, along with Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence, talked around the question of whether intelligence suggested that there was an imminent threat.

On Sunday talk shows, Mike Pompeo dodged the notion of what constituted an “imminent threat,” and chose instead to parse the meaning of the term, and shame reporters obsessed with whether hours vs. days vs. weeks matter when American lives are at risk. Each of the three of them — Trump, Pompeo and Pence — simply posited that Soleimani had been a bad guy in the past, and would continue to be in the future, as providing sufficient rationale for the targeted assassination.

Calling into Laura Ingraham on Fox, Trump weighed in with the embassy card, suggesting that four embassies were at risk, not just the embassy in Baghdad. But Ingraham knew she was being played. She knew that Trump’s team had never mentioned specific threats to any embassies in their closed-door briefing with members of Congress this week. A big supporter of Trump’s Dick Cheney side, Ingraham was looking for Trump to stick with his “we’re America, bitch” rationale, and seemed let down by his rambling on about apocryphal embassy threats.

Ingraham’s instinct was on target. The more Trump went on about embassies, the more he seemed to diminish himself. Somewhere in Wyoming, sitting around the kitchen table over the holiday, Dick Cheney and his equally hawkish daughter Liz must have been lamenting the state of affairs with Bernie Trump in charge. As reporting has continued to provide more details on events of the past two weeks, it seems that the “Seven Days in January” — as a headline in the New York Times framed our near-war with Iran — was instead a shadow war of sorts. Working through the Swiss government — which has long been the intermediary between the U.S. and Iran, in the absence of formal diplomatic relations — U.S. officials reached out to Iranian leaders from the outset, urging them not to over-react to the killing of Soleimani. For their part, Iranians leaders forwarded details of the subsequent missile attack to their U.S. counterparts, giving ample time for U.S. soldiers to be tucked into bunkers when the missiles hit and assuring there would be no American fatalities.

Members of Congress, who continue to rail on about the War Powers Act and the lack of proof of an imminent threat, seem to be stuck in their own echo chamber. Like the Pentagon and intelligence officials who flew to Florida with briefcases full of military options for what they saw as a foreign policy challenge, members of Congress who continue to argue Constitutional law and doctrine have failed to grasp the essential political reality of the moment. Imminence and the War Powers Act simply don’t matter right now. Utah Republican Mike Lee lashed out publicly about the constitutional rules that the Trump administration had violated, simply ignoring the fundamental fact — which was central to Mark Galli’s editorial in Christianity Today — that this President simply does not care. Donald Trump is acutely aware that he has already been impeached, and to some extent he must find it liberating. If Mike Lee doesn’t like the fact that he has chosen to ignore the Constitution when it comes to war powers, what do Lee and others in Congress propose to do, impeach him again?

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This week we witnessed war in the Trump era. It was scripted for politics, scripted for television and scripted for how it will play at his next rally. Sure, Donald Cheney killed a bad guy, but Bernie Trump had no interest in actually going to war over it. As long as everyone kept to the script — which it appears even Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei proved willing to do — the moment would soon pass and the world would move on.

And so, it would appear, they have. Trump has his shiny object, and things are looking up. The rift with the evangelical community has disappeared from the news, and he has offered returning prayer to the public schools to make amends. And Trump is now a “wartime” president as the impeachment trial looms. His public approval polling may not have budged — at 41.8% it remains much the same as it has been for almost two years — but his prospects in the betting markets are looking up. For the first time, Trump’s prospects for reelection in public betting markets are topping 50%.

Financial advisor to city and state governments. Lifelong Red Sox fan (don't hold it against me).

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