President Donald Trump approved preparations for military strikes against Iran—fully aware that dozens or more Iranians might die as a result, two senior Trump administration officials and another source familiar with the situation tell The Daily Beast.
To many observers, including some in his own administration, this appeared to be at odds with Trump’s account of Thursday’s deliberations; the president claimed that he abruptly halted the attack minutes before it was set to occur.
In a series of tweets on Friday morning, the president stated that the U.S. military was “cocked and loaded” on Thursday night to hit Iran before he changed his mind, stating that “10 minutes before the strike” he stopped it after being informed by “a General” of the potential loss of 150 lives.
The president’s Friday tweets caused widespread confusion within Trumpworld, with some interpreting the tweets to mean that Trump wasn’t told, or didn’t ask, about a potential body count until minutes before the strikes would have taken place.
But that wasn’t the case, as The Washington Post first reported. Trump was initially briefed on Thursday for military options to retaliate against Iran for downing a U.S. surveillance drone. One of the things his advisers discussed with him was the potential for a high Iranian body count. With the possible death toll made clear, the president approved the preparations for striking Iran.
“Yes, he was briefed on it earlier in the day,” a senior administration official said.
“The military has a standard in which the president is briefed on a potential strike—the battle damage assessment is included in that,” added a former national security official involved in past briefings. “It’s always part of the package. And that includes possible military and civilian casualties.”
White House spokespeople declined to comment on the record for this report. The Pentagon declined to comment.
Later on Friday, Trump fed the confusion further, telling NBC News’ Chuck Todd that he hadn’t given a final approval to a military strike against Iran at all—even though he tweeted that the attack was 10 minutes out.
“I thought about it for a second and I said, you know what, they shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it, and here we are sitting with a 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead," Trump said. "And I didn’t like it…I didn’t think it was proportionate."
The series of events were the first indication that the president had seriously considered military strikes against Iran—a move he has for weeks publicly shied away from. Just Thursday, Trump walked back a tweet, in which he said Iran had made a “big mistake” for shooting down an unmanned American drone.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) attended a briefing with the president at the White House Thursday with other congressional leaders.
“We talked in great depth about what they felt the appropriate response would be,” Smith said. “The gist was, the president was really wrestling with it. On the one hand, certainly you want to hold Iran accountable for this; on the other hand, nobody wants this to spin out of control.”
Smith said he was concerned that the White House was not consulting enough people when it came to Iran.
“The meeting yesterday was incredibly helpful. It was the first one he’s had. I’m chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was ranking member before that, two-plus years, it’s the first time I’ve met with anyone at the White House,” Smith said. “I wish the [national security council] had more discussions. I wish they met more frequently with leaders.”
It’s unclear if the president is considering striking Iran at all in the near future. But two former Trump White House officials told The Daily Beast that they feared that if the president saw TV pundits knocking his decision to pull back—including those on his favorite channel Fox News—it would increase the likelihood the president would actually end up confronting Iran militarily, and soon. Trump hates being portrayed as “weak,” these former officials added.
Over the last several days the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C. think tank known for its hawkish approach to Iran, wrote the White House and the State Department with guidance on how to handle the most recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the shooting down of an American drone. The message to the administration: Continue the so-called “maximum pressure” campaign, which includes crippling the Iranian economy through sanctions and cutting off Tehran’s access to the financial markets. Administration officials told The Daily Beast Friday that they were preparing to continue implementing that effort by announcing a new round of sanctions on Tehran.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were briefed this week on Iran not only by administration officials but also by former Obama administration officials, including Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator on the nuclear deal, who often keep in touch with the Iranians.
"We need to unambiguously seek to de-escalate tensions with Iran,” said Jarrett Blanc, a former Obama administration official in the State Department who worked on the Iran nuclear deal. “There's no justification in our national security interests to test Iran’s willingness to absorb military confrontation with the US. We need to get ourselves out of this situation.”
Amid the ongoing tensions between Washington and Tehran, the Trump administration has sent some of its top officials to the Middle East and Europe to shore up support for not only its stated maximum pressure campaign against Iran, but also the forthcoming unveiling of the Middle East peace plan. The State Department’s special representative for Iran, who testified in front of Congress about Iran earlier this week, is in the Middle East meeting with regional partners, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.