President Trump made clear as he strutted to the lectern Wednesday, bathed in blinding light as generals and senior advisors cleared a path, that his address on Iran had two aims: to project victory to a domestic audience and to deter a foreign foe.
The long-term impact of Trump’s decision to order the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani remains to be seen, and the president’s broader strategy appears muddy to many national security experts and members of Congress. Yet Iran’s retaliation the night before, by ending without American loss of life, gave both sides an opportunity to deescalate.
And by avoiding a war he nearly started, Trump can claim a success that fits neatly with his political identity, as long as the fragile calm holds.
“Politically, the confrontation with Iran allows Trump to have it both ways,” said Yascha Mounk, a professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. “He will claim he’s the tough guy who’s taken out Suleimani, and that he’s an isolationist who has avoided embroiling America in another war in the Middle East.”
Through Trump’s 9½-minute speech, he chose words intended to project strength and triumphalism, even as he retreated from his prior threat of “disproportionate” retaliation for any Iranian attacks on American targets, and seemed to soften long-standing U.S. policy that Iran refrain not only from building nuclear weapons but also from enriching uranium to weapons-grade material.
“As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump immediately declared, before even wishing the public “good morning.”
That was the first of many tough-sounding lines that he’s sure to repeat on the campaign trail this year. He characterized Suleimani as “a ruthless terrorist.” He lambasted his predecessors and other foreign leaders, “all the way back to 1979,” for tolerating “Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior.” And he took shots at President Obama without naming him, leveling an unverifiable and explosive charge that the international nuclear deal Obama brokered gave Iran the funds that paid for the missiles fired at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. The 2015 deal unfroze Iranian money held in foreign accounts in exchange for Iran dismantling its nuclear program.
“The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime,” Trump said. “Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer. It will not be allowed to go forward.”
Trump, who has more openly mixed foreign policy with domestic politics than his predecessors, wasted little time capitalizing on the speech politically, with text messages and emails sent out by his campaign. “URGENT: We need your IMMEDIATE response on Pres. Trump’s address to the nation,” said one, urging supporters to click on a poll to rate it “Historic,” “Great,” Good” or “Other.”
Democrats were left scrambling to some extent. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put off a vote intended to curb the president’s war powers after Trump made clear he was not about to use them. That vote is now scheduled for Thursday. The killing of Suleimani already had roiled the race for Democrats’ presidential nomination, elevating foreign policy — and attacks on Trump’s White House as chaotic and dangerously reckless — over domestic issues for now.
Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist and veteran of presidential campaigns, doubted that Trump’s claims of success in his approach with Iran would accrue to his benefit in November.
“The chaotic presidency isn’t over even if the Iran crisis settles down,” he said. “His impulsiveness, the chaos, the divisiveness — who he is — all supersedes anything that would normally be of benefit to a sitting president, with the best example being the economy. Most presidents with this economy would have a 65% favorable rating right now.”
Republican strategists sounded more relieved than celebratory. Several influential Republicans conceded they were nervous — both personally and politically — in the hours that preceded Trump’s speech, when it was still unclear whether Iranian missiles had inflicted American casualties and whether they would spur a broader conflict. Trump said no Americans or Iraqis were injured in what appeared to some analysts to be a deliberate attempt by Iran to extract some revenge without escalating tensions.
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush, said a war in the Middle East is the sort of rare event that might actually have an impact in a polarized political environment in which Trump’s levels of support and opposition change little.
“Most recent experience of presidents who have gone to war has not been kind — George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush,” he said. “Particularly for Donald Trump, had this escalated into a full-scale shooting war, even of short duration, it likely would have hurt him among his ‘America first,’ ‘get out of the Middle East’ base.”
A Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found that roughly 47% of voters supported Suleimani’s killing late last week, a figure that jumps to 85% among Republicans. Strikingly, nearly 70% of voters said they believed it would make war more likely.
One informal Trump advisor who requested anonymity to avoid alienating the president said he was fielding nervous calls for days from supporters who worried the president was angering blue-collar veterans who back him because of his commitment to avoid wars.
The advisor said Trump threaded the needle well, but also got lucky. “I wish there were more process in the White House, as much as I love the results, and I do trust his instincts,” he said.
In a nod to anxiety about another war, Trump and his allies have tried to portray Suleimani’s killing as a mission targeting a terrorist rather than a top official of a rival sovereign nation. Trump used the words “terror,” “terrorism” or “terrorist” nine times in his brief address.
He and his allies have tried to equate the drone strike that killed Suleimani with the October mission that led to the death of Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader, or the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
“The fundamental question is, do Americans feel secure and safe?” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a vocal Trump ally. The president “has taken out two of the world’s top terrorist leaders in a matter of months. It’ll save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.”