In the days following Donald Trump's apparently impulsive decision to assassinate Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran's powerful military leader, there was a lot of speculation about why the president would do something so foolish and provocative. Some folks have clung to the idea that there is method to Trump's madness, but reporting since then has made it clear that he didn't spend time contemplating the likely national security consequences before — or after — making this decision. Instead, it seems that, because Trump is motivated strictly by self-interest and ego, his focus was less on the situation in Iran and more on his re-election prospects and creating a distraction from the ongoing impeachment drama.
Late on Tuesday, evidence for the theory that this was, in part, a campaign stunt emerged. After Soleimani's killing, the Trump campaign reportedly conducted a targeted Facebook ad blitz crowing about the assassination. Almost 800 unique ads were written, trumpeting variations of how Trump's actions meant that "Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is no longer a threat to the United States, or to the world."
Within hours of this report, Iran launched 12 missiles at American bases in Iraq. Facebook ads notwithstanding, escalating tensions with a hostile foreign nation doesn't make Americans safer at all.
That Trump and his White House team thought killing a prominent Iranian military leader as little more than a campaign stunt to kick off the 2020 elections was already evident in the flat-footed response that came even before Tuesday night's bombings. They can't get their story straight on what the supposed legal and strategic reasons for the assassination are, perhaps because they didn't have any. As Washington Post reporters detailed Tuesday night, the White House has fumbled continuously in recent days, repeatedly making announcements and then contradicting themselves, on everything from whether they plan to commit war crimes against Iran to whether or not U.S. troops will be pulled from Iraq.
The White House's behavior after Tuesday's bombing was even more chaotic and deceitful.
At 7:55 p.m., CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins tweeted that White House aides "are making urgent preparations at this hour for Trump to address the nation" and "two officials say a speech is being prepared and plans are being made for Oval address."
A little over an hour later, however, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham angrily lashed out at Collins on Twitter, claiming it "was never true" that Trump was going to speak Tuesday night and making the usual noises about CNN not being a responsible news organization.
Of course, the reality is that CNN, while imperfect, at least tries to be responsible in reporting the news. Grisham, on the other hand, is a professional liar employed by a mendacious White House, which overseen by a compulsive liar. Under the circumstances, the likeliest explanation is that Collins got it right and Grisham is being deceitful.
That in turn suggests that White House staff initially were going to shove Trump before the cameras but decided he wasn't up to the task. Let's face it: Our president is babbling and incoherent on a good day. It's likely that the pressure of facing the predictable-to-everyone-but-him consequences of his impulsive decision to provoke Iran into a possible war wasn't beneficial to his already limited ability to hold it together and speak in complete sentences.
About half an hour after Grisham's implausible tweet, a tweet from Trump's account went up claiming "All is well!" and "So far, so good!" Many people seem to accept at face value that Trump himself wrote this. But the reassuring, cheerful tone is so contrary to everything we know about Trump — whose only modes are bullying and bragging — that it's a safer bet someone else wrote it, and it's just more evidence of his team trying to slap a happy face on a chaotic situation.
Trump finally delivered his scheduled remarks just after 11 a.m. on Wednesday and, after a significant delay, gave a listless performance in which he talked big but said little, beyond the usual insistence that every choice he's made — tearing up the nuclear deal with Iran, killing Soleimani — was the smartest and best possible thing to do, despite the disaster that has spooled out from it. The good news, however, is that Trump, perhaps realizing for once that he's in over his head, did not announce any plans to escalate. Instead, he claimed Iran that "appears to be standing down," a face-saving statement designed to let Trump declare victory despite screwing the pooch so badly.
There is no plan here. As Ned Price, a former national security aide to Barack Obama, wrote at NBC News Wednesday morning, Trump's foreign policy is shaped not by what's best for the United States, but by his "shortsighted, personal and dangerous inclination" to reverse everything Obama accomplished in office. Even after learning, much to his surprise, that the Iran nuclear deal made by Obama was extremely solid, Trump decided to destroy it anyway. The alternative, which was to admit to himself and his similarly racist base that the first black president was a competent negotiator, was clearly too much to bear.
The Facebook ad buy also points to another show-up-Obama motivation that likely underlies Trump's behavior towards Iran, which is to somehow "beat" Obama at the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Trump's first attempt came last year with the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which was met with great fanfare and Trump explicitly saying that this killing was "the biggest there is" and more important than the killing of bin Laden. After that, the Trump campaign also did a Facebook ad blitz hyping al-Baghdadi's death.
Killing an ISIS leader in an effort to one-up Obama, in fairness, wasn't likely to result in a lot of blowback. Killing a military leader of a sovereign nation (with which the U.S. is not at war) on the soil of another supposedly sovereign country (and an important U.S. ally) is quite another story. Trump, blinkered by his obsession with besting Obama and scoring points with his base, was unable to see it.
On Tuesday, before Iran bombed American bases, the first poll about Trump's foreign policy approach taken after the killing of Soleimani was released by Reuters/Ipsos. The numbers show that the public sees Trump's fumbling idiocy for what it is, as there was a nine-point rise in the already high disapproval ratings for Trump's handling of Iran.
Only Republicans are really telling pollsters they approve of Trump's behavior, and that is likely less out of a genuine belief that Trump knows what he's doing than from a defensive unwillingness to admit that voting this loser into office was a big mistake. There are a lot of Republican pundits and political leaders who are gunning for war with Iran, but little evidence of a similar hunger among Republican voters, who are generally more interested in triggering liberals and whining about "political correctness" than in sending their sons and daughters off into yet another endless, unwinnable war.
The one tendril of good news here is that Trump appears to realize that starting a war with Iran will only make things worse for him, and so is backing down for the moment. This whole debacle illustrates how long this year is likely to feel, as Trump keeps on making impulsive and stupid decisions in an increasingly desperate bid to score political points going into the November election. Here's hoping we can make it across the finish line without him getting anyone else killed.