One week after ordering the death of Iran’s top general and just a few days after vowing to hit Iranian military or cultural sites “harder than they have ever been hit before” should they dare hit back against American citizens or assets, Donald Trump has declared victory following Tehran’s retaliation so he could move on to other important things—like using the Qassem Soleimani hit to campaign for 2020.
In the aftermath of the confrontation, even the war hawks and top advisers surrounding President Trump are OK with him moving on for now instead of upping the body count.
And that suits the president just fine. He’s content to boast of his accomplishments and move on from this news cycle—even as the administration has kept its posture toward Iran bellicose, something analysts warn could lead to a resumption of heightened hostilities. Regardless, Trump and his team were more than happy to campaign aggressively on the immediate outcome of the United States and Iran walking up to the brink of all-out warfare.
On Thursday evening—shortly after the House of Representatives voted 224 to 194 to restrain Trump from going to war with Iran—the president hit the 2020 trail and literally began campaigning on his actions throughout the crisis.
“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad,” Trump claimed, without citing any evidence, to the cheering crowd at his rally in Toledo, Ohio. “But we stopped him and we stopped him quickly, and we stopped him cold.”
The president also used the Soleimani strike to take aim at 2020 Democratic contenders and his political foes in the upcoming impeachment trial.
“Crazy Bernie [Sanders] has condemned the U.S. military strike on Soleimani, the world’s top terrorist… and we’re having people like Nancy Pelosi… they’re all trying to say, ‘How dare you take him out that way? You should get permission from Congress… so that we can call up the “fake news” that’s back there and we can leak it,’” Trump said on stage.
Some senior administration officials have warned that it’s only been a few days since the U.S. strike that took out Soleimani, commander of the powerful Quds Force, and that the full consequences of Trump’s order may not emerge for weeks, or months, depending on how Iran and its proxies respond going forward. Less interventionist voices in the conservative movement, however, are warning that the hawks around the president are ensuring the policy remains fundamentally bellicose without a clear off-ramp, even if the missiles aren’t currently firing.
“I think that there is daylight between what the president wants in terms of his Middle East policy and what his key advisers want,” said William Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute. “I’m worried his key advisers will box him in where it becomes rational for him to take actions that get us further up this escalatory ladder.”
Still, President Trump’s nationalist foreign policy inclinations aren’t actually rooted in nonintervention or pro-peace principles. Ever since his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump has, sometimes in the same breath, bashed President George W. Bush’s doctrine and the Iraq War as unmitigated disasters built on lies, and then turned around and endorsed re-invading Iraq, committing war crimes overseas and torturing people, escalating bombing campaigns, and more. Trump’s policies since his inauguration in 2017 have reflected those seemingly dueling impulses.
In June, the president signaled to reporters at the White House that he was leaning toward restraint and potential diplomatic ambitions with Iran, only for it to be revealed later that same day that he’d greenlit military strikes on Iran, even though he knew the body count could be high. He dramatically called off the strikes practically last-minute.
In the wake of the Soleimani slaying, Trump and his administration have maintained that back-and-forth and, at times, cognitive dissonance, arguing that this president’s massive escalation was, in fact, a strategic move for “de-escalation” and an opportunity for more stability and more peace in the region.
And following days of this chaotic, violent tit-for-tat between official Washington and the regime in Tehran, the president now tells those close to him that he wants to bring the temperature down for now, and not immediately risk igniting a new, full-blown war in the Middle East, according to three people who’ve discussed the matter with him this week. Trump has long feared that doing so could potentially kick off ripple effects that erase U.S. economic gains that he intends to run on throughout the 2020 election.
Trump has also indicated that he wants to parade the killing of Soleimani as one of his grand victories and best achievements, just as he’s entered an election year. In the days since, the president has repeatedly bragged to advisers and longtime associates about how the demise of the Iranian general is “bigger than Bin Laden,” according to two individuals with knowledge of his private remarks.
In October, Trump argued that his administration’s operation that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also a bigger deal than the Osama Bin Laden raid, which was ordered by then-President Barack Obama in 2011 and which Team Obama campaigned on in 2012.
For Trump’s re-election campaign, the Soleimani strike is yet another golden opportunity to rally supporters, rake in the money, and bash allegedly anti-American liberals. Team Trump’s Iran-based fundraising and list-building appeals went into high gear two days after Soleimani was killed.
“ANOTHER dead terrorist,” blared the subject line of an email sent on Sunday by the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising committee for the Trump campaign and the RNC.
“While radical Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, Ilhan Omar, and Bernie Sanders are busy criticizing me for eliminating a deadly terrorist,” read the email, written in Trump’s voice, “my administration is busy keeping our promise to support our military and put America FIRST.” It asked recipients to take a yes-or-no survey answering the question: “Do you believe America has the greatest military in the world?”
The committee followed up the next day with another list-building email complaining that “the Corrupt Media is trying to negatively spin this HUGE accomplishment. They’ve taken a short break from falsely covering the Impeachment Scam to paint Qassem Soleimani as a coveted world leader. It’s ridiculous.”
On Wednesday, the Trump MAGA Committee sent yet another email promoting the president’s speech on the Iran conflict that day. It once again sought to build the group’s email list with a poll. “How would you rate President Trump’s Presidential Address?” it asked, and offered four options: “historic,” “great,” “good”—and “other.”
But Team Trump’s zeal for campaigning on the Iran strike also clashes with public opinion. According to recent polling, a majority of Americans, 52 percent to 34 percent, believe that the Trump administration’s latest moves against Iran are “reckless” and make the country less safe.
To be sure, the crisis has paused more than it has passed. The overwhelming majority of those on the right, from neoconservatives to nationalists, inside the administration and on the internet, united over the past week behind military confrontation with Iran. Fighting a lonely battle to get Trump to change course, sources said, were a few GOP figures such as Sen. Rand Paul.
Paul, generally a noninterventionist, has been in contact with Trump during the fallout. His message, according to a source close to the Kentucky senator, has been that unless the administration engages in active diplomacy with Tehran, the conflict might not escalate, but it will also not defuse. (The president and the senator spoke on the phone on Wednesday.) That leaves U.S.-Iran tensions highly combustible, with Iraqi Shiite militias—who have vowed revenge for the also-slain Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi paramilitary commander—in position to reignite a war. In essence, Paul argues that deescalation isn’t sufficient, and considers that the critical debate within the administration.
“Right now, we’ve got to figure out how to get back to diplomacy, and that’s the battle,” the source said. “Otherwise, you’re just stopping [a war] temporarily.”
It’s the opposite message sent by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the administration’s most influential foreign policy figure. Pompeo, the driving force behind the post-Iran deal strategy known as Maximum Pressure, wants Iran to functionally capitulate in its geopolitical strategy in exchange for a grand bargain with Washington. Paul has stated openly to Trump that he considers Maximum Pressure a folly unless diplomacy can provide for a reduction in the tensions.
The trouble, according to the source close to Paul, is that the administration is united over its confrontational posture in a way that doesn’t hold over other foreign policy flashpoints like North Korea or Afghanistan. An aide to a left-wing member of Congress joked that the more realistic hope doves have lies with Trump listening to Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s aversion to war with Iran. (Indeed, Trump has taken Carlson’s private counsel on war and Iran in the past.)
Ruger, a noninterventionist, believes Trump doesn’t want another Mideast war. The problem is that “Maximum Pressure is driving the counter-reactions we’re seeing. Maximum Pressure is escalatory,” he said. “It could lead to Iran facing a choice to surrender to the United States, which we know from history states are loath to do, or try to get out of the box somehow” through renewed violence.