In the days after President Trump authorized the killing of Iranian Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, mainstream media reports and pundits painted a picture of an erratic commander in chief — one who had made a hasty, ill-thought out decision that would prompt a new war.
Yet, current and former administration officials and analysts say his handling of Iran showed restraint, deliberateness, and the ability to make tough decisions.
Before using force, “he always does the same thing,” said one senior administration official in a phone interview on background with Breitbart News earlier this month.
“He consults with his cabinet, asks for the intelligence, and takes the opinion of his leadership…and so I think he takes a very calculated and measured response over time,” the official said.
“He is very methodical about it and very calm in these meetings, and asks lots of questions and lots of updates before he jumps to any conclusions. So it’s a very detailed and thought out process,” the official added.
Critics decried the lack of a decision-making process, but Army Gen. (Ret.) Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the Army, who has informally advised the president, confirmed there is a process to present Trump with options and the risks and ladder of escalation associated with each one.
“The national security team goes through this in some level of detail,” he said. “When it comes to decisions that involve potential loss of American lives or even our adversaries lives, the President from everything I know is very involved in the process.”
Air Force Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Robert S. Spalding III, former senior director for Strategic Planning at the NSC under the Trump administration, said “[Trump] especially likes differing points of view. He wants people to debate, and he wants to see the debate, which I think is important.”
Critics have also claimed he ignores intelligence, but Keane said he knows Trump relied on intelligence that said Soleimani was planning a major attack.
“The president acted when he had some rather significant intelligence that Soleimani was planning a major attack. Two senior government officials called on Friday after the Soleimani takedown, and they said essentially the same thing,” he said.
“One of them indicated the intelligence was exquisite and the other said the intelligence is very reliable and solid and both of them said it was a planned comprehensive attack on multiple targets in multiple locations,” he said.
Although the decision to strike Soleimani was characterized by some as erratic, NBC News reported that the option was first put on the table by Trump’s advisers as many as seven months ago, but Trump refrained from taking it, even while Iran had conducted a series of provocative actions against the U.S. and its allies.
Since October, Iran’s Shia militia proxies in Iraq had carried out about 11 rocket attacks on installations in Iraq where U.S. forces were present, according to the Pentagon.
In September, Iran attacked oil plants in Saudi Arabia, taking out half of its oil output. In July, it seized a United Kingdom ship. In June, it attacked Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers and shot down a U.S. drone.
Each time, Trump chose economic sanctions or cyber attacks. But Trump’s patience ran out after Iranian-backed forces targeted and killed an American contractor and wounded four American service members.
“President Trump has been pretty darn patient, and he’s made clear, at the same time, that when Americans’ lives were at risk we would respond,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News’ Fox & Friends on December 30.
The recent crisis unfolded in a matter of a week, while the president on vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
On Friday, December 27, an Iranian Shia militia rocket attack killed the American contractor and wounded U.S. troops in Iraq. The president was presented with an initial list of options, according to the New York Times.
On Saturday, December 28, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley went to Mar-a-Lago. Trump then authorized airstrikes against Shia militia targets, including weapons storage facilities and command posts used to attack U.S. and coalition forces, and killing about two dozen militia fighters, according to the Times.
On Sunday, December 29, Esper, Milley, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a brief statement at Mar-a-Lago. Esper called the strikes successful and added, “in our discussion today with the President, we discussed with him other options that are available.”
On Monday, December 30, Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) golfed together and no doubt discussed the unfolding situation. The State Department announced Pompeo would be traveling to Ukraine later that week.
On Tuesday, December 31, America woke up to images of pro-Iran supporters attacking the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. That morning, Trump headed to his golf club, but only for an hour. That afternoon, he tweeted a “threat”: “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”
Sometime during the day, he spoke with Iraq’s prime minister, according to a White House read out. The Pentagon then sent out a statement that Esper had authorized sending troops to the Middle East.
If Trump had already authorized the strike on Soleimani, he did not let on. Later that evening, Trump attended a New Year’s Eve party, speaking confidently to journalists beforehand.
On Wednesday, January 1, Trump spent six hours at his golf club, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET. Around noon, word came that Pompeo had canceled his trip to Ukraine so that he could monitor events in the Middle East — a sign that the Soleimani decision had been made by then.
On Thursday, January 2, Esper and Milley briefed reporters at 9:30 a.m. ET, with no hint of the pending strike. Trump went to his golf club for five hours, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET.
Around 5 p.m. was when Trump got word of a “clean party” — or that there were no Iraqi officials accompanying Soleimani — and gave the final authorization to strike, according to the Times.
Criticism from the left was swift and loud. That night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released a statement criticizing the strike: “Tonight’s airstrike risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence. America – and the world – cannot afford to have tensions escalate to the point of no return.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a key Iran hawk in the Senate, called accusations that Trump had taken “reckless” and “impulsive” action with no planning or forethought “fiction”:
FICTION: Trump has taken reckless & impulsive action with no planning or forethought for what comes next
FACT: Trump acted on previously expressed red lines that were crossed,after exhausting all other options & fully aware that Iran will now respond,if only to save face
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 3, 2020
On January 4, Iran eventually retaliated with ballistic missile strikes against Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) also fueled accusations in a tweet claiming the president was “unstable” and “panicking”:
The moment we all feared is likely upon us.
An unstable President in way over his head, panicking, with all his experienced advisers having quit, and only the sycophantic amateurs remaining.
Assassinating foreign leaders, announcing plans to bomb civilians.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 5, 2020
However, the attacks resulted in structural damage, but did not kill any Americans or Iraqis. President Trump then called for Iran to return to the negotiating table on its illicit nuclear program.
“The U.S. is doing backchannel discussions with the Iranians, which of course is what you’d want to do in a crisis situation, exactly what JFK did during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said James Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.
“So it’s almost the opposite of kind of this caricature of this impulsive, ill-disciplined president who just listens to the last person that talks to him,” he said.
Later news reports reflected an intensive decision-making process, unlike what critics had accused. For example, CNN reported that as planning for the strike got underway, Pompeo worked with Esper, Milley, and the commander of Central Command Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, while keeping Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Graham, in the loop.
Trump’s senior advisers — Esper, Milley, CIA Director Gina Haspel and national security adviser Robert O’Brien — “were all on board,” the outlet reported.
One early story by the New York Times said the president was “fuming” after the embassy attacks.
But the senior administration official indicated the decision was more deliberate. “He did it to prevent the further loss of American life, which is what he was reacting to. So I would say it’s the more than appropriate response.”
The official added, “I think he reached that decision based on the totality of the information that was available to him by his cabinet.”
Praise for the president’s decision has since rolled in from top national security experts, including from the left and center.
Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Obama Adm. (Ret.) Sandy Winnefield wrote in the Hill:
Whether one agrees with the elimination of General Qassem Soleimani as the correct means of signaling Iran, it was an important statement that a new red line is in effect. … Now Iran (and presumably other self-alienated states) have been served notice that they will be held more directly accountable for the actions of their proxies, particularly when those actions result in the death of an American.
Obama National Security Adviser Marine Gen. (Ret.) Jim Jones said at a recent forum, “What the administration did in the Soleimani case is absolutely correct. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
“He’s not a strategist. But his tactical game hasn’t been bad. The hit on Suleimani was genius — totally flummoxed his opponent,” Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former C.I.A. specialist on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Times.
Carafano added, “It’s interesting, the option the president has already selected has been the thing that actually hurts the other guy, but almost in a way that they can’t really retaliate.”
As to why Trump has been able to make these hard decisions, despite not having a military background, analysts said it has more to do with personal attributes than military experience.
“How he tweets and deals with political issues may be a lot different than how he’s dealing with national security issues that impact American lives,” Keane said. “His opponents portray him as an erratic decision-maker who doesn’t think through the consequences and I don’t believe the evidence supports that contention.”
“It really comes down to the president himself and his ability to deal with his own fears and his ability to weigh the alternatives and make sound judgments,” he added.
“I’m convinced that President Obama for most of his eight years by and large when it came to the use of very limited military force, was paralyzed by the fear of adverse consequences and therefore doing nothing was never appropriately addressed in terms of what the consequences are. And I think that is regrettable,” he said.
Spalding, who also attended NSC meetings during the Obama administration as a member of the Joint Staff, said under that administration, he saw “an inability to move things to conclusion.”
He said there was an emphasis to “give the appearance of things being done without actually really doing anything. And I didn’t see any of that during the Trump administration.”
He said another thing that’s different is the lack of pre-cooked outcomes. He said by the time a decision made its way up to President Obama, it was often “pre-cooked.”
“Susan Rice basically knew what he wanted and ensured that,” he said. “It was all about taking options off the table.”
“What you have in the Trump administration that’s different is that a lot of times the cabinet members don’t know how he’s going to decide. And he makes a decision on the basis of what he thinks is the right thing to do,” he said.
Carafano said he believes that Trump was even “more precise and disciplined” than President George W. Bush was in his first administration.
“You have to remember that New York real estate is a pretty rough and tumble business. There’s a lot of setbacks, a lot of challenges, a lot of back stabbing, a lot of incomplete information, you’re really dealing with competing with people, so in many ways it is a good proving ground for decision-making,” he said.
“It doesn’t prepare you to think, ‘Well what do I think about the Houthis? Who’s a Uyghur? It doesn’t necessarily give you the background in foreign policy, but it does kind of hone your decision-making skills,” he said. He added:
And I think where the president’s actually been pretty good really from Day One, and I saw this when I briefed him when he was still just a candidate, is, ‘Look if I’m not the expert on something, I know I need to have expert knowledge before I make a decision. I can make hard choices, that’s easy, but I’ll go to the experts, get the information and then I’ll make the hard choice.
“That’s a really high degree of self-confidence,” he said.