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Westlake Legal Group > Bolton, John R

Gordon Sondland Elbowed His Way Into Ukraine Policy. It Could Cost Him.

WASHINGTON — To foreign policy experts, it is no mystery why President Trump’s national security adviser tried in May to block Gordon D. Sondland from becoming a player in United States diplomacy with Ukraine.

As the American envoy to the European Union, Mr. Sondland managed a portfolio unrelated to Ukrainian issues. And beyond that, he was so inexperienced as a diplomat — a wealthy Republican donor rewarded with an ambassadorship — that one top White House foreign policy adviser complained he was a national security risk.

But Mr. Sondland wedged his way into Ukraine policymaking anyway, attending the new president’s inauguration in Kiev in May and briefing Mr. Trump afterward, all over the objections of the national security adviser at the time, John R. Bolton. And now Mr. Sondland’s gambit appears to have placed him at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

In testimony scheduled for Thursday, Mr. Sondland was expected to say that during a meeting in May, Mr. Trump gave him and two other officials the impression that they should coordinate on Ukraine issues with his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani. That command effectively created a foreign policy back channel that cut the State Department and National Security Council out of deliberations involving a pivotal ally against Russia.

Mr. Sondland was also expected to testify that he realized by midsummer that Mr. Trump had a condition for agreeing to an Oval Office meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, the new president of Ukraine: an announcement by Ukrainian prosecutors that could benefit Mr. Trump’s political fortunes.

Initially hopeful that Mr. Sondland’s account would help Mr. Trump, congressional Republicans now fear it will add momentum to Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. His decision to testify is itself a sign of fissures in the support for Mr. Trump, evidence that even some defenders have balked at shouldering the legal and reputational costs of thwarting the impeachment inquiry.

Westlake Legal Group volker-ukraine-impeachment-document-promo-1570197638674-articleLarge Gordon Sondland Elbowed His Way Into Ukraine Policy. It Could Cost Him. Zelensky, Volodymyr United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Ukraine Trump, Donald J Trump-Ukraine Whistle-Blower Complaint and Impeachment Inquiry State Department Sondland, Gordon D (1957- ) Hill, Fiona (1965- ) European Union Europe Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Bolton, John R

Read the Text Messages Between U.S. and Ukrainian Officials

The messages reveal new details about President Trump’s efforts to use American foreign policy to benefit himself.

In a matter of weeks, Mr. Sondland has evolved from a neophyte diplomat known for his ambition and subservience to the president into a witness, however unwilling, in a proceeding against Mr. Trump.

In the process, Mr. Sondland’s own reputation took a hit. Fiona Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs at the White House, described him to congressional investigators this week as a well-meaning but inexperienced liability.

He used his personal cellphone for official business and assured foreign officials they were welcome at the White House whenever they liked, she testified. On one occasion, she said, Romanian officials showed up at the White House gates with no appointment, citing Mr. Sondland.

As experts see it, his story is an object lesson in the pitfalls of handing influential foreign posts to diplomatic naïfs, while stripping oversight from the career officials at the State Department and the National Security Council.

“I told the Europeans, maybe this is the best you can expect” from the Trump administration, said Daniel Fried, a former longtime diplomat now with the Atlantic Council. No one imagined, he said, that Mr. Sondland would become a pivotal player “in this bottomless pit” of scandal.

Mr. Sondland, 62, tall and bald, is far from a typical diplomat. Foul-mouthed and unafraid to bruise egos, he craves the limelight, not policy papers and the politics of quiet persuasion that are the staples of diplomacy.

He nonetheless fits a certain mold of ambassadors: The founder of a boutique hotel chain, he landed his post after decades of work bankrolling Republican presidential candidates, including John McCain, Mitt Romney and George W. Bush and his brother Jeb Bush. In Bush family circles, he was particularly well liked.

“There aren’t many people who do it as well as he does,” David Nierenberg, an investment manager in Washington State who worked on Mr. Romney’s campaigns, said of Mr. Sondland’s fund-raising prowess. “He knew how to deliver.”

Friends said he loved the trappings of politics: ferrying presidential candidates around the northwest in his Lear jet and hosting their events at his 8,300-square-foot estate in Portland, Ore.

He had hoped to be rewarded, he told Mr. Nierenberg, with an ambassadorship in a German-speaking country. That would bring his life full circle, he explained: His parents fled Nazi Germany as teenagers in 1939.

But he was a latecomer to supporting Mr. Trump, first backing Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio. During the 2016 campaign, after Mr. Trump disparaged the Muslim parents of an American soldier killed in Iraq, Mr. Sondland and his business partner backed out of a fund-raiser, saying they did not share Mr. Trump’s values.

Those reservations apparently vanished once Mr. Trump was elected. Mr. Sondland donated $1 million to his inaugural committee, joining a crush of once-reluctant donors anxious to make up for their previous lack of support. In spring 2017, he joined the Republican National Committee’s finance committee as a regional vice chairman.

Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s first chief of staff, was unwilling to grant Mr. Sondland an administration job. But after Mr. Priebus was fired, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who knew Mr. Sondland from the campaign, put forward his name for ambassador, according to people familiar with the situation. He was appointed in May 2018.

By then, the post had gone unfilled for more than a year. Some European officials suspected it was a deliberate sign of neglect of Western allies that Mr. Trump has accused of unfair trade practices.

European officials were struck Mr. Sondland’s self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. He quickly posted an introductory video on Twitter. Set to snappy string music, it described him as the son of immigrants and showed him brewing espresso, showing off his fine art collection and climbing into a private jet that he pilots.

His message to his European hosts was less friendly. At one dinner party, Mr. Sondland said his job was “to destroy the European Union,’’ one senior European official said.

He repeatedly told European officials that their countries had long taken advantage of the United States through trade, according to one person who heard him complain. And he seemed unaware of protocol, inviting the leaders of European countries to dinner without understanding that they do not typically dine with ambassadors.

A June 28 dinner in Brussels was a case study in his unapologetic style. The German Marshall Fund originally organized it for 18 former and current diplomats and academics to discuss trans-Atlantic relations. Once Mr. Sondland heard about it, two participants said, he insisted on hosting.

As the plates were cleared in a small ornate room in the American Embassy, he delivered what one guest described as “a first-year master’s student’s” account of the Marshall Plan, the United States’ multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Europe after World War II.

“We paid all this money, but every room I go to in Europe, I get told no,” he told his stunned guests, according to two participants. “Why?”

“It felt like a shakedown,” said one of the guests.

European officials said that Mr. Sondland often bragged about his good relationship with Mr. Trump, and some said it was clear that he was looking for a higher-level administration post.

How he inserted himself into American relations with Ukraine, which is not part of the European Union, is not entirely clear. Ms. Hill has said he told her that Mr. Trump had put him in charge.

In a July interview with a Ukrainian television station, Mr. Sondland presented himself as an authority, dismissing the notion that Ukraine is torn between Europe and Russia. “It’s not a tug of war. They’re Western, and they’re going to stay Western,” he proclaimed.

With Mr. Trump’s blessing, he traveled to Kiev in May for Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration. Others in the delegation included the energy secretary, Rick Perry, and Kurt D. Volker, the American special envoy to Ukraine. They labeled themselves “the three amigos.”

Mr. Sondland’s subsequent White House meetings are a key focus of questioning for congressional investigators.

When he and his colleagues briefed Mr. Trump on May 23, the president complained that the Ukrainians were “all corrupt” and had tried to keep him from winning the White House. He left them with the impression that they were to talk to Mr. Giuliani in dealing with Ukraine.

By mid-July, Mr. Sondland was expected to testify, he had realized that Mr. Zelensky would be granted an Oval Office audience only if Ukraine publicly announced it would investigate Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that had placed Hunter Biden, the younger son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., on its board. According to a person familiar with his account, Mr. Sondland did not then understand the relationship between Burisma and the Bidens.

In a July 10 White House meeting with Mr. Bolton, Ms. Hill and two top Ukrainian officials, Mr. Sondland cited an agreement with the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, that inviting Mr. Zelensky to the Oval Office depended on Ukraine opening criminal investigations, according to Ms. Hill’s testimony. She told congressional investigators that she subsequently heard Mr. Sondland mention Burisma to the Ukrainians.

Mr. Sondland was expected to testify that he has no firm recollection of that conversation. But the next month, he and Mr. Volker prepared a draft statement for the Ukrainians to issue, announcing an investigation of Burisma and any interference in the 2016 American presidential election. And in a subsequent text message, he wrote: “POTUS really wants the deliverable.”

Mr. Sondland now fears that he will be blamed for the scandal, while more powerful players will be protected, one person close to him said. He has expressed concern that he could end up, the person said, as “collateral damage.”

Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Fandos, Adam Goldman and Kenneth P. Vogel from Washington; Steven Erlanger from Brussels; and Maggie Haberman from New York. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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Ex-Aide Saw Gordon Sondland as a Potential National Security Risk

Westlake Legal Group 16dc-sondland1-facebookJumbo Ex-Aide Saw Gordon Sondland as a Potential National Security Risk United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Ukraine Trump, Donald J Trump-Ukraine Whistle-Blower Complaint and Impeachment Inquiry Sondland, Gordon D (1957- ) Pompeo, Mike Mulvaney, Mick Fiona Hill Espionage and Intelligence Services Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Bolton, John R

WASHINGTON — A former top White House foreign policy adviser told House impeachment investigators this week that she viewed Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, as a potential national security risk because he was so unprepared for his job, according to two people familiar with her private testimony.

The adviser, Fiona Hill, did not accuse Mr. Sondland of acting maliciously or intentionally putting the country at risk. But she described Mr. Sondland, a hotelier and Trump donor-turned-ambassador, as metaphorically driving in an unfamiliar place with no guardrails and no GPS, according to the people, who were not authorized to publicly discuss a deposition that took place behind closed doors.

Ms. Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs at the White House, also said that she raised her concerns with intelligence officials inside the White House, one of the people said.

Mr. Sondland’s lawyer declined to comment.

In her testimony, Ms. Hill described her fears that Mr. Sondland represented a counterintelligence risk because his actions made him vulnerable to foreign governments who could exploit his inexperience. She said Mr. Sondland extensively used a personal cellphone for official diplomatic business and repeatedly told foreign officials they were welcome to come to the White House whenever they liked.

Ms. Hill said that his invitations, which were highly unusual and not communicated to others at the White House, prompted one instance in which Romanian officials arrived at the White House without appointments, citing Mr. Sondland.

Ms. Hill also testified that Mr. Sondland held himself out to foreign officials as someone who could deliver meetings at the White House while also providing the cellphone numbers of American officials to foreigners, the people said. Those actions created additional counterintelligence risks, she said.

Mr. Sondland is scheduled to meet privately with impeachment investigators himself on Thursday, despite directions from the State Department and the White House that he and other witnesses should not cooperate with an investigation because the president and his senior advisers view it as illegitimate. Mr. Sondland’s lawyer has indicated that his client will testify.

Other aspects of Ms. Hill’s explosive testimony that have been previously reported as well as details offered by other officials who have spoken to investigators put Mr. Sondland at the center of a parallel foreign policy toward Ukraine. Sidelining career experts and the former American ambassador to Kiev, Mr. Sondland, other political appointees close to the president and Mr. Trump’s private lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani sought to pressure Ukraine’s new government to open investigations into Democrats that would benefit the president politically.

Ms. Hill said that she and her boss, John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, were so concerned by what they saw that Ms. Hill alerted White House lawyers. She told the committees that Mr. Bolton wanted to make clear that he was not part of whatever “drug deal” that Mr. Sondland and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, were crafting on Ukraine, and that on another occasion Mr. Bolton compared Mr. Giuliani to “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”

Ms. Hill testified that she and Mr. Bolton were moved to act after Mr. Sondland revealed during a July 10 meeting that there was an agreement with Mr. Mulvaney that Mr. Trump would meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine if his government opened the investigations the White House sought. Mr. Sondland also mentioned Burisma, the Ukrainian energy firm that had appointed Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., to its board.

A White House meeting would be a sought-after prize for Mr. Zelensky, conferring legitimacy on his new government and demonstrating American support as Ukraine battles Russian-backed separatists in its east.

Ms. Hill left the White House in July, before Mr. Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky that prompted the whistle-blower complaint that set off the Ukraine scandal.

Earlier this month, Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine, produced to investigators text messages with Mr. Sondland and other American and Ukrainian officials that showed Mr. Sondland was deeply enmeshed in efforts to secure investigations from the Ukrainians that could help the president politically.

Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting.

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Standoffs With Iran Test Trump’s Resolve to Use Military Force

WASHINGTON — By the time President Trump met with congressional leaders on the afternoon of June 20, he had already decided to retaliate against Iran for shooting down an American surveillance drone. But for once, he kept his cards close to the vest, soliciting advice rather than doing all of the talking.

“Why don’t you go after the launch sites?” a Republican lawmaker asked.

“Well,” Mr. Trump replied with a hint, “I think you’ll like the decision.”

But barely three hours later, Mr. Trump had changed his mind. Without consulting his vice president, secretary of state or national security adviser, he reversed himself and, with ships readying missiles and airplanes already in the skies, told the Pentagon to call off the airstrikes with only 10 minutes to go. When Vice President Mike Pence and other officials returned to the White House for what they expected would be a long night of monitoring a military operation, they were stunned to learn the attack was off.

That about-face, so typically impulsive, instinctive and removed from any process, proved a decision point for a president who has often threatened to “totally destroy” enemies but at the same time has promised to extricate the United States from Middle East wars. It revealed a commander in chief more cautious than critics have assumed, yet underscored the limited options in a confrontation he had set in motion.

Three months later, some of Mr. Trump’s own allies fear the failure to follow through was taken by Iran as a sign of weakness, emboldening it to attack oil facilities in Saudi Arabia this month. Mr. Trump argues his decision was an expression of long-overdue restraint by a nation that has wasted too many lives and dollars overseas.

But he finds himself back where he was in June, wrestling with the consequences of using force and the consequences of avoiding it, except now Iran is accused of an even more brazen provocation, and the stakes seem even higher.

As Mr. Trump again weighs retaliation against Iran, this time for the Saudi attacks, the choice he made in June is instructive in the insight it provides into how the president approaches a life-or-death decision committing American forces against an enemy.

This account of that day in June is based on interviews with White House aides, Pentagon officials, military officers, American and foreign diplomats, members of Congress and outside presidential advisers, most of whom asked not to be identified describing private conversations.

That day clearly stays with Mr. Trump, who has ruminated on it over the past week.

“When I was running, everybody said, ‘Oh, he’s going to get into war, he’s going to get into war, he’s going to blow everybody up, he’s going to get into war,’” he told reporters on Friday. “Well, the easiest thing I can do — in fact, I could do it while you’re here — would say, ‘Go ahead, fellas, go do it.’ And that would be a very bad day for Iran.”

But as eager as he is to fight with 280 characters on Twitter, Mr. Trump has proved profoundly reluctant to fight with live ammunition on a real battlefield. “For all of those that say, ‘Oh, they should do it, it shows weakness,’” he said, “actually, in my opinion, it shows strength.”

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_156836193_c785c69f-6314-43e8-9788-4290249f1d1b-articleLarge Standoffs With Iran Test Trump’s Resolve to Use Military Force United States Politics and Government United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Shanahan, Patrick M (1962- ) Pompeo, Mike Iran Gulf of Oman Incident (June 2019) Gulf of Oman Graham, Lindsey Dunford, Joseph F Jr Defense Department Defense and Military Forces Carlson, Tucker Bolton, John R

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in June in Tehran inspecting debris purported to be fragments of a downed American drone.CreditMeghdad Madadi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Trump came to office fixated on Iran as an enemy to be confronted. In abandoning the nuclear agreement negotiated by President Barack Obama in 2015 on the grounds that it was a bad deal, Mr. Trump set himself on a collision course with Tehran that was bound to test him.

Strained by the “maximum pressure” sanctions that Mr. Trump has imposed, Iran this summer acted out aggressively, targeting oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and vowing to reconstitute its nuclear program. The overnight downing of the Global Hawk drone in June seemed to climax a campaign of escalation that would draw in Mr. Trump.

Hours after the drone was destroyed, the president’s team met for breakfast at 7 a.m. in the office of John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were joined by two acting secretaries of defense, Patrick M. Shanahan, who had just announced his resignation and was days away from departing, and Mark T. Esper, his designated replacement.

At the meeting, several strike options were discussed. The Pentagon’s preferred plan was to attack one of the missile-laden Iranian boats that the United States had been tracking in the Gulf of Oman. American forces would warn the Iranians to evacuate the vessel, videotape them doing so, then sink the boat with a bomb or missile strike.

The end result would be zero casualties, which Mr. Shanahan and General Dunford argued would be a proportional response to the downing of a $130 million drone that had itself resulted in no loss of life.

Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo were concerned that would not be decisive enough and pushed for strikes on Iranian soil. Mr. Bolton argued for what was described as a “comprehensive list” of targets, but only so many could be hit if the operation was to be carried out quickly, so the officials settled on three Iranian missile batteries and radars.

The same advisers reconvened along with more officials at 11 a.m. in the Situation Room to brief the president. The meeting lasted for about an hour as various possibilities were discussed.

Four officials said that striking the three targets would result in about 150 casualties, a number derived from Iranian manning doctrine for these particular facilities, including operators, maintenance personnel and security guards.

How much Mr. Trump was paying attention to that part of the briefing or what he absorbed was not clear in hindsight to some officials. But they said the casualty estimates were included as part of the target package presented to the president.

The aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in August. The ship was prepared to launch an attack against Iran on June 20, but the final order never came.CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times

The national security team emerged from that meeting convinced it had a decision from Mr. Trump to strike, and soon the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and other ships and aircraft were on the move, preparing for an attack around 9 p.m. Washington time, or just before dawn in the region.

Still, there continued to be pushback from Pentagon civilians and General Dunford. They argued that killing as many as 150 Iranians did not equate to the shooting down of a drone and could prompt a counterstrike by Iran that would escalate into a broader confrontation.

Moreover, General Dunford argued that a sustained conflict in the Middle East would require the United States to divert more forces to the region, including from the Pacific theater, which would benefit China.

Mr. Trump seemed to be nursing doubts of his own, partly because of reports that the Iranian commander who shot down the drone had acted on his own, not on specific orders of the national government. Just after the Situation Room meeting, he sat down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, who was visiting, and floated that scenario.

“I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office shortly after noon. “I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.”

Mr. Bolton argued that it mattered little if Tehran gave the order or gave its commanders so much authority that they could take such action on their own. But it clearly did matter to Mr. Trump.

It also mattered that he had been so critical of past presidents for being too quick to pull the trigger. In the days leading up to this moment, he had talked with Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, who reminded him that he had come to office to get out of endless wars, not start a new one.

If he allowed himself to be pulled into a new conflict by the same people who got the United States into Iraq, then Mr. Trump could forget about his chances for re-election, Mr. Carlson told him.

And beyond his own electoral prospects, Mr. Trump bristled at the idea of a wider war. “People underestimate how much emotionally he does not like the idea of Americans dying needlessly,” said Christopher Ruddy, a friend and the chief executive of Newsmax.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on June 20 after leaving a closed door meeting about Iran. Democrats suggested caution, warning that a military strike could destabilize the region and play into Iran’s hands.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

At 3 p.m., Mr. Trump convened a dozen congressional leaders from both parties in the Situation Room, a rare act of inclusion. Mr. Pence, Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Shanahan, Mr. Esper, Mr. Bolton and Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, joined the meeting.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was late because she was meeting with Mr. Trudeau, and the group debated waiting for her, but with so much history of animosity between Democrats and Republicans, there was no small talk and the room fell into an awkward silence. Finally, they decided to go ahead with the discussion.

Mr. Trump rambled on about how bad Mr. Obama’s deal had been and insisted over and over again — one lawmaker estimated a dozen times — that his pressure campaign would force Iran to the bargaining table.

He seemed less certain about what to do in response to the drone shootdown. Democrats suggested caution, warning that a military strike could destabilize the region and play into Iran’s hands.

Mr. Trump, for once, did not reject their views. Indeed, he seemed concerned about an overreaction. “At the end of the day, the impression I got was that the president was genuinely worried about stumbling into a broader conflict,” said Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

“I think it was good that the president asked us over,” he added. “And he was inclusive. He didn’t just bring us over there to bark at us for an hour and a half. He listened. Which, frankly, surprised me a little bit.”

Mr. Trump disclosed no decision to the lawmakers, but forces were already in motion, and more than 10,000 sailors and airmen were on the move. The plan called for Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fired from at least two Navy ships in the region. Carrier-based fighter/attack planes would not participate in the original strike, but would be launched into the air above the North Arabian Sea to counter any attempt by the Iranians to retaliate.

Mr. Trump still had time to rethink it — the military calculated the “go/no go” point at which the first stage of the operation would begin and it would no longer be possible to call off.

Tehran in June. Mr. Trump bristled at the idea of getting the United States into a new war.CreditEbrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

As the hour approached, Mr. Trump was given the estimate that 150 Iranians would be killed in the attack. The president later said publicly that it came when he asked his generals, but in fact, multiple officials said the estimate was delivered to him by a White House lawyer who got it from a Pentagon lawyer.

Pentagon lawyers typically prepare casualty estimates drawn from manuals listing how many personnel are believed to work at certain foreign facilities. One official said that White House lawyers demanded an estimate because they had to fill out a memo justifying military action under the president’s Article II powers as commander in chief.

Advocates of the strike angrily assumed the lawyers had pulled an end-run around the process and complained that the estimate was just a formula that did not account for the fact that the attack would be conducted at night when few if any personnel would be on duty.

Why Mr. Trump suddenly latched onto the estimate at this point rather than when casualties were discussed at the earlier meeting remains a mystery to many officials. Some assumed he was influenced by Mr. Carlson or other allies that his re-election would be jeopardized and was looking for cover.

But when the decision came, Mr. Pence, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton were all out of the White House, and the president did not call them for input. Instead, he told the Pentagon to call off the attack.

General Dunford called Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of the Central Command in Tampa, Fla., with new orders from the White House: The strike was off. The Tomahawk missiles stood down. Attack planes were called back.

In the command center of the Abraham Lincoln, Rear Adm. Michael E. Boyle, the commander of the carrier strike group, had been waiting for the final order to attack. “All the systems were on, all the lights were green, we were waiting for the order,” Admiral Boyle recalled. “And the order didn’t come.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, on June 20 in the Oval Office. They pushed for strikes on Iran.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

When the president’s top advisers returned to the White House and learned what happened, they were flabbergasted. Mr. Pompeo was described as incredulous, Mr. Bolton as aggravated.

The advisers were stunned all over again the next morning when Mr. Trump took to Twitter to reveal that he had been “cocked and loaded” for a strike and then called it off. There was no need to publicly disclose how close they had come to acting, they thought; by doing so, the president risked making it look like he had blinked.

The moment was all too reminiscent to them of Mr. Obama, who had warned Syria that using chemical weapons on civilians during its civil war would cross a “red line” prompting American action, only to back off the threat when Damascus ignored him in 2013. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Obama was mindful of getting the United States into another Middle East war, but the failure to follow through did lasting damage to his reputation.

Also like Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump would find another way that had its own merits. Mr. Obama reached a deal with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, which he argued did far more to save lives than a momentary strike would have, even though Syria later cheated. In Mr. Trump’s case, he launched a cyberstrike that did considerable damage to Iran’s ability of targeting shipping with no loss of life.

But now allies like Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and advisers like Mr. Bolton, who left the White House this month after deep disagreements with Mr. Trump, including over the aborted strike, argue that marching up to the line of a military operation and then calling it off only emboldened Iran.

“The president’s repeated failure to militarily respond to Iranian actions has been a serious mistake,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former C.I.A. official at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group dedicated to countering Iran’s influence. “To believe the reverse requires a certain deep dive into new-age, oh-so-Western psychology, where crippling caution becomes a virtue.”

Some said Mr. Trump has only himself to blame. “Trump is in a box of his own making,” said Philip Gordon, who was a Middle East adviser to Mr. Obama. “He has put in place policies — ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran — guaranteed to provoke an aggressive Iranian response, but he’s not prepared to respond aggressively in turn, and the Iranians know it.”

“So now he has to either back down or go down that slippery military slope,” he added, “a terrible dilemma he should have considered before he went down this road in the first place.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

An Abrupt Move That Stunned Aides: Inside Trump’s Aborted Attack on Iran

WASHINGTON — By the time President Trump met with congressional leaders on the afternoon of June 20, he had already decided to retaliate against Iran for shooting down an American surveillance drone. But for once, he kept his cards close to the vest, soliciting advice rather than doing all of the talking.

“Why don’t you go after the launch sites?” a Republican lawmaker asked.

“Well,” Mr. Trump replied with a hint, “I think you’ll like the decision.”

But barely three hours later, Mr. Trump had changed his mind. Without consulting his vice president, secretary of state or national security adviser, he reversed himself and, with ships readying missiles and airplanes already in the skies, told the Pentagon to call off the airstrikes with only 10 minutes to go. When Vice President Mike Pence and other officials returned to the White House for what they expected would be a long night of monitoring a military operation, they were stunned to learn the attack was off.

That about-face, so typically impulsive, instinctive and removed from any process, proved a decision point for a president who has often threatened to “totally destroy” enemies but at the same time has promised to extricate the United States from Middle East wars. It revealed a commander in chief more cautious than critics have assumed, yet underscored the limited options in a confrontation he had set in motion.

Three months later, some of Mr. Trump’s own allies fear the failure to follow through was taken by Iran as a sign of weakness, emboldening it to attack oil facilities in Saudi Arabia this month. Mr. Trump argues his decision was an expression of long-overdue restraint by a nation that has wasted too many lives and dollars overseas.

But he finds himself back where he was in June, wrestling with the consequences of using force and the consequences of avoiding it, except now Iran is accused of an even more brazen provocation, and the stakes seem even higher.

As Mr. Trump again weighs retaliation against Iran, this time for the Saudi attacks, the choice he made in June is instructive in the insight it provides into how the president approaches a life-or-death decision committing American forces against an enemy.

This account of that day in June is based on interviews with White House aides, Pentagon officials, military officers, American and foreign diplomats, members of Congress and outside presidential advisers, most of whom asked not to be identified describing private conversations.

That day clearly stays with Mr. Trump, who has ruminated on it over the past week.

“When I was running, everybody said, ‘Oh, he’s going to get into war, he’s going to get into war, he’s going to blow everybody up, he’s going to get into war,’” he told reporters on Friday. “Well, the easiest thing I can do — in fact, I could do it while you’re here — would say, ‘Go ahead, fellas, go do it.’ And that would be a very bad day for Iran.”

But as eager as he is to fight with 280 characters on Twitter, Mr. Trump has proved profoundly reluctant to fight with live ammunition on a real battlefield. “For all of those that say, ‘Oh, they should do it, it shows weakness,’” he said, “actually, in my opinion, it shows strength.”

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_156836193_c785c69f-6314-43e8-9788-4290249f1d1b-articleLarge An Abrupt Move That Stunned Aides: Inside Trump’s Aborted Attack on Iran United States Politics and Government United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Shanahan, Patrick M (1962- ) Pompeo, Mike Iran Gulf of Oman Incident (June 2019) Gulf of Oman Graham, Lindsey Dunford, Joseph F Jr Defense Department Defense and Military Forces Carlson, Tucker Bolton, John R

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in June in Tehran inspecting debris purported to be fragments of a downed American drone.CreditMeghdad Madadi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Trump came to office fixated on Iran as an enemy to be confronted. In abandoning the nuclear agreement negotiated by President Barack Obama in 2015 on the grounds that it was a bad deal, Mr. Trump set himself on a collision course with Tehran that was bound to test him.

Strained by the “maximum pressure” sanctions that Mr. Trump has imposed, Iran this summer acted out aggressively, targeting oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and vowing to reconstitute its nuclear program. The overnight downing of the Global Hawk drone in June seemed to climax a campaign of escalation that would draw in Mr. Trump.

Hours after the drone was destroyed, the president’s team met for breakfast at 7 a.m. in the office of John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were joined by two acting secretaries of defense, Patrick M. Shanahan, who had just announced his resignation and was days away from departing, and Mark T. Esper, his designated replacement.

At the meeting, several strike options were discussed. The Pentagon’s preferred plan was to attack one of the missile-laden Iranian boats that the United States had been tracking in the Gulf of Oman. American forces would warn the Iranians to evacuate the vessel, videotape them doing so, then sink the boat with a bomb or missile strike.

The end result would be zero casualties, which Mr. Shanahan and General Dunford argued would be a proportional response to the downing of a $130 million drone that had itself resulted in no loss of life.

Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo were concerned that would not be decisive enough and pushed for strikes on Iranian soil. Mr. Bolton argued for what was described as a “comprehensive list” of targets, but only so many could be hit if the operation was to be carried out quickly, so the officials settled on three Iranian missile batteries and radars.

The same advisers reconvened along with more officials at 11 a.m. in the Situation Room to brief the president. The meeting lasted for about an hour as various possibilities were discussed.

Four officials said that striking the three targets would result in about 150 casualties, a number derived from Iranian manning doctrine for these particular facilities, including operators, maintenance personnel and security guards.

How much Mr. Trump was paying attention to that part of the briefing or what he absorbed was not clear in hindsight to some officials. But they said the casualty estimates were included as part of the target package presented to the president.

The aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in August. The ship was prepared to launch an attack against Iran on June 20, but the final order never came.CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times

The national security team emerged from that meeting convinced it had a decision from Mr. Trump to strike, and soon the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and other ships and aircraft were on the move, preparing for an attack around 9 p.m. Washington time, or just before dawn in the region.

Still, there continued to be pushback from Pentagon civilians and General Dunford. They argued that killing as many as 150 Iranians did not equate to the shooting down of a drone and could prompt a counterstrike by Iran that would escalate into a broader confrontation.

Moreover, General Dunford argued that a sustained conflict in the Middle East would require the United States to divert more forces to the region, including from the Pacific theater, which would benefit China.

Mr. Trump seemed to be nursing doubts of his own, partly because of reports that the Iranian commander who shot down the drone had acted on his own, not on specific orders of the national government. Just after the Situation Room meeting, he sat down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, who was visiting, and floated that scenario.

“I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office shortly after noon. “I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.”

Mr. Bolton argued that it mattered little if Tehran gave the order or gave its commanders so much authority that they could take such action on their own. But it clearly did matter to Mr. Trump.

It also mattered that he had been so critical of past presidents for being too quick to pull the trigger. In the days leading up to this moment, he had talked with Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, who reminded him that he had come to office to get out of endless wars, not start a new one.

If he allowed himself to be pulled into a new conflict by the same people who got the United States into Iraq, then Mr. Trump could forget about his chances for re-election, Mr. Carlson told him.

And beyond his own electoral prospects, Mr. Trump bristled at the idea of a wider war. “People underestimate how much emotionally he does not like the idea of Americans dying needlessly,” said Christopher Ruddy, a friend and the chief executive of Newsmax.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on June 20 after leaving a closed door meeting about Iran. Democrats suggested caution, warning that a military strike could destabilize the region and play into Iran’s hands.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

At 3 p.m., Mr. Trump convened a dozen congressional leaders from both parties in the Situation Room, a rare act of inclusion. Mr. Pence, Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Shanahan, Mr. Esper, Mr. Bolton and Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, joined the meeting.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was late because she was meeting with Mr. Trudeau, and the group debated waiting for her, but with so much history of animosity between Democrats and Republicans, there was no small talk and the room fell into an awkward silence. Finally, they decided to go ahead with the discussion.

Mr. Trump rambled on about how bad Mr. Obama’s deal had been and insisted over and over again — one lawmaker estimated a dozen times — that his pressure campaign would force Iran to the bargaining table.

He seemed less certain about what to do in response to the drone shootdown. Democrats suggested caution, warning that a military strike could destabilize the region and play into Iran’s hands.

Mr. Trump, for once, did not reject their views. Indeed, he seemed concerned about an overreaction. “At the end of the day, the impression I got was that the president was genuinely worried about stumbling into a broader conflict,” said Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

“I think it was good that the president asked us over,” he added. “And he was inclusive. He didn’t just bring us over there to bark at us for an hour and a half. He listened. Which, frankly, surprised me a little bit.”

Mr. Trump disclosed no decision to the lawmakers, but forces were already in motion, and more than 10,000 sailors and airmen were on the move. The plan called for Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fired from at least two Navy ships in the region. Carrier-based fighter/attack planes would not participate in the original strike, but would be launched into the air above the North Arabian Sea to counter any attempt by the Iranians to retaliate.

Mr. Trump still had time to rethink it — the military calculated the “go/no go” point at which the first stage of the operation would begin and it would no longer be possible to call off.

Tehran in June. Mr. Trump bristled at the idea of getting the United States into a new war.CreditEbrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

As the hour approached, Mr. Trump was given the estimate that 150 Iranians would be killed in the attack. The president later said publicly that it came when he asked his generals, but in fact, multiple officials said the estimate was delivered to him by a White House lawyer who got it from a Pentagon lawyer.

Pentagon lawyers typically prepare casualty estimates drawn from manuals listing how many personnel are believed to work at certain foreign facilities. One official said that White House lawyers demanded an estimate because they had to fill out a memo justifying military action under the president’s Article II powers as commander in chief.

Advocates of the strike angrily assumed the lawyers had pulled an end-run around the process and complained that the estimate was just a formula that did not account for the fact that the attack would be conducted at night when few if any personnel would be on duty.

Why Mr. Trump suddenly latched onto the estimate at this point rather than when casualties were discussed at the earlier meeting remains a mystery to many officials. Some assumed he was influenced by Mr. Carlson or other allies that his re-election would be jeopardized and was looking for cover.

But when the decision came, Mr. Pence, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton were all out of the White House, and the president did not call them for input. Instead, he told the Pentagon to call off the attack.

General Dunford called Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of the Central Command in Tampa, Fla., with new orders from the White House: The strike was off. The Tomahawk missiles stood down. Attack planes were called back.

In the command center of the Abraham Lincoln, Rear Adm. Michael E. Boyle, the commander of the carrier strike group, had been waiting for the final order to attack. “All the systems were on, all the lights were green, we were waiting for the order,” Admiral Boyle recalled. “And the order didn’t come.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, on June 20 in the Oval Office. They pushed for strikes on Iran.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

When the president’s top advisers returned to the White House and learned what happened, they were flabbergasted. Mr. Pompeo was described as incredulous, Mr. Bolton as aggravated.

The advisers were stunned all over again the next morning when Mr. Trump took to Twitter to reveal that he had been “cocked and loaded” for a strike and then called it off. There was no need to publicly disclose how close they had come to acting, they thought; by doing so, the president risked making it look like he had blinked.

The moment was all too reminiscent to them of Mr. Obama, who had warned Syria that using chemical weapons on civilians during its civil war would cross a “red line” prompting American action, only to back off the threat when Damascus ignored him in 2013. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Obama was mindful of getting the United States into another Middle East war, but the failure to follow through did lasting damage to his reputation.

Also like Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump would find another way that had its own merits. Mr. Obama reached a deal with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, which he argued did far more to save lives than a momentary strike would have, even though Syria later cheated. In Mr. Trump’s case, he launched a cyberstrike that did considerable damage to Iran’s ability of targeting shipping with no loss of life.

But now allies like Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and advisers like Mr. Bolton, who left the White House this month after deep disagreements with Mr. Trump, including over the aborted strike, argue that marching up to the line of a military operation and then calling it off only emboldened Iran.

“The president’s repeated failure to militarily respond to Iranian actions has been a serious mistake,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former C.I.A. official at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group dedicated to countering Iran’s influence. “To believe the reverse requires a certain deep dive into new-age, oh-so-Western psychology, where crippling caution becomes a virtue.”

Some said Mr. Trump has only himself to blame. “Trump is in a box of his own making,” said Philip Gordon, who was a Middle East adviser to Mr. Obama. “He has put in place policies — ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran — guaranteed to provoke an aggressive Iranian response, but he’s not prepared to respond aggressively in turn, and the Iranians know it.”

“So now he has to either back down or go down that slippery military slope,” he added, “a terrible dilemma he should have considered before he went down this road in the first place.”

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Robert O’Brien ‘Looks the Part,’ but Has Spent Little Time Playing It

WASHINGTON — Even his many critics conceded that the former national security adviser John R. Bolton brought useful credentials to the job: decades of foreign policy experience and a keen grasp of how the gears of government turn.

Mr. Bolton’s main problem, as it turned out, was that he knew too much. Confident in his experience to a fault, he was unwilling to shade his deeply held hawkish views, which he defended with a prickly personality that alienated colleagues — and ultimately President Trump himself, leading to his ouster last week.

Robert C. O’Brien, Mr. Trump’s choice to succeed Mr. Bolton, flips that equation. He is a former Los Angeles lawyer with limited government experience before he became the State Department’s point man for hostage negotiations. But his friends all cite an affable, ingratiating personality that has earned him allies throughout the Trump administration, notably including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, both of whom supported his appointment.

His physical appearance did not hurt, either. Whereas Mr. Trump was known to grouse about Mr. Bolton’s famous bushy mustache, the president has been taken with Mr. O’Brien’s well-tailored looks and easy demeanor, and thinks he “looks the part,” as one person close to the president said.

Mr. O’Brien has a record of traditional conservative foreign policy views, and has supported a tougher American approach toward China, Iran and Russia. And Mr. O’Brien served with Mr. Bolton when he was President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations. But Mr. O’Brien is no ideological firebrand in the mold of Mr. Bolton, who pushed Mr. Trump to take military action against Iran and wore contempt for the federal bureaucracy on his sleeve.

Friends and Trump officials say that while Mr. Bolton saw himself as a crusader for specific policy goals — and some said a necessary counterweight to Mr. Trump’s instincts — Mr. O’Brien, 53, is more likely to act as an arbiter of competing views and a facilitator of Mr. Trump’s decisions. One Trump official said that Mr. O’Brien would bring “no outside agenda” to the job.

That approach fits the traditional definition of the national security adviser job, a potential source of comfort to a foreign policy establishment at home and abroad long rattled by Mr. Trump’s impulsive style, and more recently by Mr. Bolton’s disregard for deliberative, organized policymaking.

But questions remain about whether Mr. O’Brien’s background has adequately prepared him for the myriad challenges of his new job. Mr. Trump is currently navigating, among other things, a broiling crisis with Iran, a deadlocked trade war with China, a stalemate in nuclear talks with North Korea and the recent collapse of peace talks in Afghanistan.

“I think the greatest challenge he will have is his relative lack of experience inside the U.S. government, and with the interagency process, given that a gigantic part of the job is coordinating the interagency process,” said Richard Fontaine, the chief executive of the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security.

Mr. Fontaine, who considers Mr. O’Brien a friend, said that “in stark contrast to Bolton,” the president’s new aide will have to spend time “learning the nooks and crannies of government.”

“When you’re in the Situation Room, you can be surprised by how many people are actually there,” he added.

Mr. O’Brien, a founding partner of the Los Angeles-based law firm Larson O’Brien, is not a complete newcomer to the Situation Room. As the United States government’s top hostage negotiator, he has interacted with military, intelligence and diplomatic officials in his efforts to free Americans held prisoner across the globe.

Among those freed during Mr. O’Brien’s tenure are Andrew Brunson, a pastor held by Turkey for two years, and Danny Lavone Burch, an oil-company engineer kidnapped in Yemen and rescued in a raid by forces from the United Arab Emirates.

Mr. Trump has often celebrated these releases with on-camera meetings in the Oval Office, where Mr. O’Brien praised the president lavishly.

“This wouldn’t happen with all of these hostages and detainees without the support of the president,” Mr. O’Brien said in March after Mr. Burch’s release. “The president has had unparalleled success in bringing Americans home without paying concessions, without prisoner exchanges, but through force of will and the good will that he’s generated around the world.”

More recently, Mr. Trump sent Mr. O’Brien to Sweden for the unusual mission of trying to win the release of the rap star ASAP Rocky, who had been arrested on charges of criminal assault. A Swedish judge released the rapper pending a resolution of the case and a court later found him guilty; he was ordered to pay damages but did not have to spend more time behind bars.

Mr. O’Brien waged a low-key campaign for his new job, making his desire clear to the president and encouraging others to talk up his credentials. He encountered little opposition in contrast to candidates like Brian H. Hook, the special envoy for Iran, whose personal loyalty to the president is doubted by some administration officials.

He is a longtime friend of Mr. Pompeo’s and was on the secretary of state’s short list of acceptable choices, according to two people involved in the process. His warm relationship with Mr. Pompeo will, for now, reverse the dysfunctional rivalry that existed between Mr. Bolton and Mr. Trump’s senior diplomat.

Mr. O’Brien will be Mr. Trump’s fourth national security adviser in three years, the most any president has had in a first term. Following two predecessors who came to grate on the president and were fired — Mr. Bolton and the man who preceded him, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster — his survival will depend in part on keeping the president happy.

Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles on Wednesday with Mr. O’Brien by his side, Mr. Trump suggested they were off to a good start.

“I think we have a very good chemistry together, and I think we’re going to have a great relationship,” Mr. Trump said. “He is a very talented man.”

In brief remarks, Mr. O’Brien twice mentioned the goal of maintaining “peace through strength,” perhaps best known as a catchphrase of former President Ronald Reagan.

And while he does not have the record of television punditry that helped land Mr. Bolton the job, he has written regularly about foreign policy and collected a series of essays into a book, “While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis,” published in 2016 with a cover blurb from Mr. Bolton and a glowing introduction from the conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt.

In his book, Mr. O’Brien cites Winston Churchill as a hero, condemns what he calls President Barack Obama’s weak foreign policy and calls for America to face down emboldened “autocrats, tyrants and terrorists.” That view would seem out of sync with Mr. Trump’s well-documented affinity for autocratic leaders, from Russia to Saudi Arabia to Brazil.

In 2012, Mr. O’Brien was an adviser to Mitt Romney when he ran against Mr. Obama. And he was not an early supporter of Mr. Trump in the 2016 campaign. During the Republican primaries, he first advised Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and then joined the campaign of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

In one published opinion piece for Politico in October 2015, Mr. O’Brien counseled Mr. Cruz to criticize Mr. Trump more aggressively on foreign policy and advised “playing up how chummy he will be with Vladimir Putin if he is elected.”

Jerrold D. Green, the president and chief executive of the Pacific Council on International Policy, a foreign affairs organization in Los Angeles, said that he has known Mr. O’Brien for more than a decade and that Mr. O’Brien had been scheduled to be the keynote speaker on Wednesday at Pepperdine Law School’s Constitution Day, but had to cancel because of his appointment as national security adviser.

“He’s well loved in California, which is interesting, for a rather conservative Republican in this which is the heartland of liberal Democratic politics,” Mr. Green said. “He’s a very, very popular, well-respected, well-liked guy here, despite the fact that his political universe is Scott Walker and Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz, who are somewhat less than iconic amongst most Angelenos. It kind of speaks to his personal qualities.”

After John Bolton Was Fired
Read about what led to Mr. O’Brien’s appointment.
Trump Names 5 Candidates for National Security Adviser

Sept. 17, 2019

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Trump Ousts John Bolton as National Security Adviser

Sept. 10, 2019

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Five Policy Clashes Between John Bolton and President Trump

Sept. 10, 2019

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Michael Crowley reported from Washington, Peter Baker from Los Angeles and Maggie Haberman from New York. Tim Arango contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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Trump Weighs Retaliation Against Iran and Names National Security Adviser

LOS ANGELES — In the space of seven minutes on an airport tarmac on Wednesday, President Trump captured the thorny decision he faces as he once again straddles the edge of war and peace.

One moment, he threatened to order “the ultimate option” of a strike on Iran in retaliation for attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. The next he ruminated about what a mistake it had been for the United States to get entangled in Middle East wars and welcomed Iran’s president to visit.

To help sort through the alternatives, Mr. Trump on Wednesday named a hawkish new national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, the State Department’s chief hostage negotiator. But as Mr. Trump spoke with reporters, shouting to be heard over the roar of Air Force One engines, Mr. Trump sounded like a commander in chief searching for a way to be tough without pulling the trigger.

“It’s very easy to attack, but if you ask Lindsey, ask him how did going into the Middle East, how did that work out? And how did going into Iraq work out?” Mr. Trump told reporters, referring to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican ally who warned against showing “weakness” toward Iran. “So we have a disagreement on that. And you know, there’s plenty of time to do some dastardly things. It’s very easy to start.”

Mr. Trump’s team has developed a range of alternatives short of a retaliatory strike with bombs or missiles, including a new round of sanctions to further strangle Iran’s economy, the deployment of more American forces to the region as a deterrent against future provocations and a stepped-up cybercampaign to send a message of resolve to Tehran without bloodshed, officials said.

The president, who was wrapping up a three-day campaign trip to New Mexico and California, began Wednesday by vowing more sanctions on Iran to be detailed in the next 48 hours. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia and declared the attacks an “act of war” by Iran but talked mainly of rallying allies to enhance deterrence.

“That’s my mission here, is to work with our partners in the region,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters on his plane. “We will be working with our European partners as well,” he continued, adding, “We’re working to build out a coalition to develop a plan to deter them.”

The military options available to Mr. Trump are similar to the airstrikes that he called off at the last minute in June after Iran shot down an American surveillance drone. Among those potential Iranian targets were facilities like radar and missile batteries. Instead of missile attacks, the United States later mounted a cyberattack on Iran that avoided the casualties that Mr. Trump said concerned him.

Military planners at the Pentagon and at United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., have forwarded a long-identified list of Iranian targets that could constitute a proportional response. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper discussed those options with Mr. Trump and other top national security aides in meetings on Sunday and Monday, officials said.

The more aggressive options include strikes against Iran’s Abadan oil refinery, one of the world’s largest, or Kharg Island, the country’s biggest oil export facility, options first reported by NBC News.

But attacking them could escalate the conflict and pull the United States deeper into a Middle East conflict.

Other potential targets include missile launch sites, bases or other assets belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the elite Iranian unit blamed for much of Iran’s paramilitary operations against external foes.

American intelligence detected unusual activity at military bases in southwest Iran that would be consistent with preparations for missile and drone strikes like those against Saudi Arabia, two senior American officials said. Those bases could be among potential targets.

Any strikes against Iran would almost certainly be carried out by volleys of cruise missiles from Navy vessels. Strike aircraft would be aloft to carry out attacks if Iran retaliated against the first wave, but the priority would be to not endanger American pilots.

Michael J. Morell, a former acting director of the C.I.A., said on Monday night that the United States must retaliate, especially if Iran is found responsible for the attacks.

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Mr. O’Brien is an outspoken advocate of tough policies toward Iran and powers like Russia and China.CreditErik Simander/TT News Agency, via Reuters

“We need to respond here, particularly if the attack occurred from Iran,” Mr. Morell said in a presentation at George Mason University in Virginia. “That is an act of war, not just a terrorist attack. I think we have to deter Iran.”

Senior officials said they were looking at cyberoptions, which would cause few or no casualties and would be considered a “proportionate response.”

American war plans have long included such options against Iranian oil production facilities, a feature of a plan called Nitro Zeus, developed years ago to cripple Iranian infrastructure without resorting to bombing.

The secret cyberattack in June wiped out a critical database used by Iran’s paramilitary arm to plot attacks against oil tankers and degraded Tehran’s ability to covertly target shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf, at least temporarily. Iran spent months trying to recover lost information and restart some of the computer systems — including military communications networks. It is not clear whether it has succeeded.

Military planners are also advancing the idea of deploying more American forces to the region without taking direct action against Iran. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, has pushed to send additional troops to the region, senior military officials said.

In meetings and in memos, the general has argued that the United States should view Iran as a great power or near-peer threat, much as the Trump administration’s formal national security strategy views China, Russia and North Korea.

Under that logic, the United States would include Iran along with China and Russia as a central threat, requiring sustained military commitment to the region. The attack on the Saudi oil fields, the officials said, is being used to bolster Central Command’s push for more resources.

But Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for Central Command, disputed that characterization, which was provided by senior Pentagon officials. “That is a wildly inaccurate representation of General McKenzie’s thoughts and counsel on both Iran and the National Defense Strategy,” he said, without elaborating.

Mr. Trump will be assisted in making his decision by Mr. O’Brien, who will replace John R. Bolton as the national security adviser. Mr. Trump announced the appointment via Twitter on Wednesday morning, and Mr. O’Brien, a Los Angeles lawyer, then joined him on Air Force One.

In selecting Mr. O’Brien, the president opted for an outspoken advocate of tough policies toward Iran and powers like Russia and China, leaving it unclear how his advice may differ from that of Mr. Bolton, an ally with whom Mr. O’Brien has worked in the past. Mr. Bolton left the White House last week in an acrimonious break with the president after unsuccessfully urging the June strikes on Iran and resisting diplomatic outreach to Tehran.

Mr. O’Brien will be Mr. Trump’s fourth national security adviser in less than three years, the most any president has had in a first term. He has written regularly about foreign policy and collected a series of essays in a book, “While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis,” published in 2016 with a cover blurb from Mr. Bolton.

In that book, Mr. O’Brien warned against “appeasement and retreat” as he excoriated President Barack Obama for what he deemed a weak foreign policy. “There is simply no evidence to support the idea that we can trust revolutionary Iran to give up its long-term goal of developing a nuclear weapon and delivery systems,” he wrote.

Although Mr. Trump abandoned Mr. Obama’s nuclear agreement, the president remains open to negotiations with Iran. His administration denied visas to some Iranians intent on traveling to New York for next week’s United Nations General Assembly session because of their ties to a designated terrorist group, but Mr. Trump said he would let top Iranian officials visit. “If it was up to me, I would let them come,” he said.

His disagreement with Mr. Graham, one of his closest allies, was notable. The senator said on Tuesday that the president’s decision to call off the airstrikes in June was seen by Iran as “a sign of weakness.”

On the Los Angeles tarmac on Wednesday, Mr. Trump rejected that, saying, “No, I actually think it’s a sign of strength.”

“There are many options,” Mr. Trump added. “There’s the ultimate option and there are options that are a lot less than that. And we’ll see. We’re in a very powerful position. Right now we’re in a very, very powerful position.”

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Trump Names Robert O’Brien, a Hostage Negotiator, as National Security Adviser

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LOS ANGELES — President Trump on Wednesday selected Robert C. O’Brien, the State Department’s chief hostage negotiator, to become his national security adviser, moving to reconstitute his foreign policy staff even as he faces rising tension with Iran.

In choosing Mr. O’Brien to replace John R. Bolton, who left the White House last week, the president chose a Los Angeles lawyer who had impressed him with his work to extricate Americans detained by countries like North Korea and Turkey. But it is not clear how different his advice will be from his predecessor given that Mr. O’Brien previously worked for Mr. Bolton and has cited his hawkish views in the past.

Mr. Trump announced the selection on Twitter shortly after saying he would also “substantially increase Sanctions” on Iran after weekend attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia that officials in Washington and the region have blamed on the Tehran government.

Mr. Trump, who is in California for a second day of campaign fund-raising, offered no elaboration on how sanctions could be increased, but the move may have been a way of offering a tough response to the attacks in Saudi Arabia without necessarily using military force. His statement came shortly after he retweeted a message defending his decision this summer to call off an airstrike on Iran.

“I am pleased to announce that I will name Robert C. O’Brien, currently serving as the very successful Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department, as our new National Security Adviser,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “I have worked long & hard with Robert. He will do a great job!”

Mr. O’Brien, a founding partner of the Los Angeles-based law firm Larson O’Brien, will be Mr. Trump’s fourth national security adviser in three years, the most any president has had in a first term. He has written regularly about foreign policy and collected a series of essays into a book, “While America Slept,” published in 2016 during the last presidential campaign with a cover blurb from Mr. Bolton.

In that book, Mr. O’Brien warned of the dangers that major powers like Russia and China pose and argued against “appeasement and retreat” as he excoriated President Barack Obama for what he deemed a weak foreign policy. He compared Mr. Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran to the Munich Agreement that emboldened Adolf Hitler in 1938.

“America faces a stark choice in 2016 between a continuation of President Obama’s ‘lead-from-behind’ foreign policy and sequester-based national security approach and a return to President Reagan’s ‘leader of the free world’ foreign policy and ‘peace through strength’ national security approach,” he wrote.

Mr. O’Brien served with Mr. Bolton when he was President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and has advised Republican candidates like Mitt Romney, Scott Walker and Ted Cruz. In both the Bush and Obama administrations, Mr. O’Brien worked on an initiative to train lawyers and judges in Afghanistan.

He was appointed special presidential envoy for hostage affairs under Mr. Trump and worked to release Americans held abroad. Among those who have been freed were Andrew Brunson, a pastor held by Turkey for two years, and Danny Burch, an oil-company engineer kidnapped in Yemen and rescued in a raid by forces from the United Arab Emirates.

Mr. Trump has often celebrated these releases with meetings in the Oval Office, where Mr. O’Brien praised the president lavishly.

“This wouldn’t happen with all of these hostages and detainees without the support of the president,” Mr. O’Brien said in March after Mr. Burch’s release. “The president has had unparalleled success in bringing Americans home without paying concessions, without prisoner exchanges, but through force of will and the good will that he’s generated around the world.”

Mr. Trump has often cited that praise, even taking it another step. “‘President Donald J. Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States. 20 hostages, many in impossible circumstances, have been released in last two years. No money was paid,’” he wrote on Twitter in April, citing Mr. O’Brien.

More recently, Mr. Trump sent Mr. O’Brien to Sweden for an unusual mission of trying to win the release of the rap star ASAP Rocky, who had been arrested for criminal assault. A Swedish judge released the rapper pending a resolution of the case and a court later found him guilty; he was ordered to pay damages but did not have to spend more time behind bars.

Mr. O’Brien’s first test as national security adviser may be Iran. While Mr. Trump has hinted at military action to retaliate for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, saying at one point that the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond, he has also said he was in no rush to use force. On Wednesday, he emphasized an economic response.

“I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, without elaborating.

The president on Tuesday got into a Twitter exchange on Iran with a close ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, in which Mr. Trump defended his reluctance to authorize military action.

Mr. Graham cited the president’s decision to call off an airstrike after Iran shot down an unmanned surveillance drone, saying that was taken by Tehran as “a sign of weakness.” Mr. Trump fired back at Mr. Graham, writing, “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!”

Mr. Trump followed up on Wednesday by retweeting a post by Laura Ingraham, the conservative commentator, concurring with him. “Totally agree — a sign of weakness would be a trigger-happy reaction to the drone strike,” she wrote. “@realDonaldTrump’s right.”

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Trump Names Robert O’Brien, Hostage Mediator, as National Security Adviser

Westlake Legal Group 18dc-nsc-facebookJumbo Trump Names Robert O’Brien, Hostage Mediator, as National Security Adviser United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J O'Brien, Robert C (1952- ) National Security Council Bolton, John R

LOS ANGELES — President Trump selected Robert C. O’Brien, the State Department’s chief hostage negotiator, to become his national security adviser on Wednesday, moving to reconstitute his foreign policy staff even as he faces rising tension with Iran.

Mr. Trump announced the selection on Twitter shortly after saying he would also “substantially increase Sanctions” on Iran following weekend attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia that officials in Washington and the region have blamed on the Tehran government.

In choosing Mr. O’Brien to replace John R. Bolton, who left the White House last week, the president tapped a longtime lawyer who has impressed him with his work to extricate Americans detained by countries like North Korea and Turkey.

Mr. O’Brien, a founding partner of the law firm Larson O’Brien, will be Mr. Trump’s fourth national security adviser in three years, the most any president has had in a first term.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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For Mike Pompeo, a Moment of Singular Influence

WASHINGTON — It took about five minutes after John R. Bolton’s unceremonious fall from grace this week before Washington’s official whisper factory started floating a surprising suggestion for a replacement: Mike Pompeo.

Not that Mr. Pompeo would give up his post as secretary of state to succeed Mr. Bolton as national security adviser. Instead, he would take on both jobs, occupying the corner West Wing office and the Foggy Bottom diplomatic headquarters simultaneously, just as the now-legendary Henry A. Kissinger did in the 1970s.

The notion may be fanciful; it may only be the fevered dream of Mr. Pompeo’s ambitious camp. But even if it never comes to pass, just the fact that it was floated speaks volumes about how singular a figure Mr. Pompeo has become in President Trump’s factional foreign policy circle, the victor in his cage match with Mr. Bolton and the one true survivor as every other original member of the national security team has been cast aside or fled.

Unlike Mr. Bolton or other departed advisers like H.R. McMaster, Rex W. Tillerson, Jim Mattis or Dan Coats, Mr. Pompeo has navigated Mr. Trump’s choppy presidency without capsizing. While conservative like Mr. Bolton, Mr. Pompeo has learned to advance his policy goals where he can, dispense with them when he has to and keep himself in the good graces of a notoriously fickle commander in chief.

“Secretary Pompeo has figured out how to advise the president in ways the president wants,” said Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and a former National Security Council official under President George W. Bush.

For now, anyway. As the last 32 months have shown, the only permanent aspect of Mr. Trump’s administration is impermanence. Next week, Mr. Pompeo could just as easily find himself on the wrong side of the president — even the talk of his potentially taking both jobs might irritate Mr. Trump.

But at the moment, no other foreign policy adviser has the president’s ear like Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton’s exit gives him a chance to further enhance his influence.

Even if he does not take on twin titles, the list of apparent candidates for the national security adviser job includes a couple of Mr. Pompeo’s special envoys, Stephen E. Biegun and Brian Hook, either of whom would give Mr. Pompeo a stronger connection to the White House than he had during Mr. Bolton’s 17-month tenure.

And he already has important allies at the Defense Department — Secretary Mark T. Esper was a West Point classmate — and at the C.I.A., whose director, Gina Haspel, previously worked for Mr. Pompeo when he ran the agency at the start of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Yet Mr. Pompeo’s own commitment to the administration has been in question lately as he flirts with a possible run for the Senate from Kansas. He has months to decide and the emergence of a new national security structure without Mr. Bolton and with his own role enhanced could tilt the odds toward him staying.

For Mr. Pompeo, 55, the rise to the top of Mr. Trump’s team is the culmination of a rocket ride from obscurity in just eight years. A backbench Republican congressman from Kansas, he made himself into a hero of conservatives and the bête noire of liberals with an aggressive performance on the committee investigating Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, over the 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

First as C.I.A. director and then as secretary of state, Mr. Pompeo has shown a knack for connecting with Mr. Trump. Widely viewed as smart and strategic, if at times testy and even bombastic, Mr. Pompeo has made loyalty to the president his first “mission set,” a phrase he uses constantly from his time at West Point and in the Army.

And while he agreed with and facilitated the president’s desire to abandon the international nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated by President Barack Obama, he also kept private any skepticism he may have had over Mr. Trump’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea and Iran.

Even the recent collapse of the proposed peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan may have served Mr. Pompeo’s complicated interests. He pleased Mr. Trump by delivering a deal as requested and yet when the president canceled it over a suicide bomb attack, he was off the hook for whatever blowback the deal might have caused.

“Pompeo is a guy who on one hand wants to deliver for the president, and is often also the guy who kind of has to placate the State Department, whch often is dovish,” said James Jay Carafano, a national security scholar at the Heritage Foundation. “So there’s a lot of triangulation there.”

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_68977141_cf16147e-9582-4615-9861-f40e077552fd-articleLarge For Mike Pompeo, a Moment of Singular Influence United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J State Department Pompeo, Mike National Security Council Kissinger, Henry A Bolton, John R

Henry A. Kissinger, right, with President Richard M. Nixon in 1973. Mr. Kissinger was the only person to simultaneously serve as both secretary of state and national security adviser.CreditGeorge Tames/The New York Times

But putting him in dual roles like Mr. Kissinger held under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford would be fraught with risks — some for Mr. Pompeo, and many for the national security establishment, which, in more normal times has come to view the National Security Council as a somewhat neutral arbiter among competing departments and agencies, from the Pentagon to the State Department to the intelligence agencies.

Colin Kahl, who was the top foreign policy aide for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., noted that the national security adviser is expected to focus on the inside game, staffing the president and coordinating a collection of agencies and departments, while the secretary of state is the public face of American diplomacy.

“Given how much care and feeding Trump needs from staff, and how complex and fast moving the world is — even compared to Kissinger’s time — it is hard to imagine anyone effectively playing both roles,” Mr. Kahl said.

Yet Ms. Schake noted that Mr. Trump clearly does not want the kind of rigorous interagency process that other presidents have had and so in that sense there may be less of a problem in combining the roles. “But mainly what appointing Pompeo to both State and NSA jobs would show is that, like Nixon, President Trump doesn’t actually trust anybody else,” she said.

The prospect of being the most powerful national security figure since Mr. Kissinger would hold obvious appeal for Mr. Pompeo. As Mr. Nixon’s national security adviser, Mr. Kissinger played an outsized role and effectively overshadowed Secretary of State William P. Rogers, so that when Mr. Rogers stepped down, it made sense to formalize his expanded role.

When Mr. Nixon resigned, Mr. Ford kept Mr. Kissinger in both jobs after he became president, but ultimately the dual role came to be problematic and, in a broader reshuffling of his team, the president stripped Mr. Kissinger of his national security adviser title and left him at State.

Instead, it was his successor, Brent Scowcroft, who became known as the model national security adviser. He was known for letting agencies present their views, and not coloring them with his own. He was so successful that he was later brought back for a second stint in the job under President George Bush.

For Mr. Pompeo, the challenge would be satisfying his boss while convincing the rest of the national security establishment that he was a neutral player — and also representing the views of the State Department.

One recent former White House official said the biggest risk for Mr. Pompeo would be “proximity.” The official noted that while it was one thing to move in and out of the White House, Mr. Trump frequently tires of those who are constantly in his sight — and, eventually, seek to contain his instincts. As the former official noted, an adviser loses altitude as soon as he settles into an adjoining office.

“The biggest reason this is unworkable though is that Trump is too insecure to rest this much prestige in one adviser,” agreed John Gans, author of “White House Warriors,” a new book on the National Security Council.

He noted that Mr. Trump was reported to be upset in 2017 when, Stephen K. Bannon, then his chief strategist, landed on the cover of Time magazine. “How is he going to feel when everyone rightly calls Pompeo the most powerful foreign policy player since Kissinger?” he asked.

David Rothkopf, who has also written about the history of the National Security Council, noted other risks of giving both jobs to Mr. Pompeo. “It might seem tempting and fuss free to Trump, but it would be a big mistake,” he said. “It would be tempting because Trump is comfortable with Pompeo and he won’t have to at least attempt or pretend to introduce someone new into his inner circle.”

But Mr. Rothkopf noted that such a move would be complicated by the fact that Mr. Trump often “tweets out positions before deliberations had taken place,” forcing aides to reverse-engineer a policymaking process to justify a decision that has already been made. The result is that national security adviser “isn’t much of a role under Trump. In fact, it is both the most negligible and the most dysfunctional NSC process since the Reagan years and the debacle of Iran-contra.”

Whether he takes the second job or simply continues in the one he already has, Mr. Pompeo now has a window of opportunity to shape Mr. Trump’s foreign policy as no other adviser has been able to do.

He has shown that he may try to steer the president but will not try too hard to dissuade him from his strongest impulses. Instead, it seems, he will wait for his moments and make the most of them.

Whether that dynamic is sustainable, of course, is anyone’s guess. “Pompeo has been able to walk through the rain drops so far, but how long does that last?” said Mr. Gans. “No one else on the national security side has managed to stay dry forever.”

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Trump Wants Big Diplomatic Wins. Here Are the Odds.

WASHINGTON — John R. Bolton has left the Situation Room, and President Trump is left at the table with a giant set of chips set on hot spots around the world.

In Mr. Trump’s view, the clock is ticking: He needs some big victories between now and the election in November 2020. But he also wants to prove that his idiosyncratic approach to foreign policy — as a series of deals rather than a philosophy of how American hard and soft power is deployed — can produce results that have eluded Washington’s foreign policy establishment for a decade or more.

Here’s a look at six issues on the table.

Ask Mr. Trump about his negotiations with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and he will tell you he is already winning: He was the first American president to meet a North Korean leader — three times now — and the first to step, briefly, into North Korean territory. He has gotten back the remains of American soldiers and won a pause, which has lasted nearly two years, in nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. It all led Mr. Trump to declare on Twitter, after his first meeting with Mr. Kim in Singapore, that North Korea was “no longer a Nuclear Threat.”

The only problem is that the North’s nuclear ability has increased since that meeting, by some estimates significantly. Intelligence estimates indicate that the North’s stockpile of fuel has swelled, and so has its missile arsenal. Short-range missile tests have improved Mr. Kim’s ability to strike American bases in South Korea and Japan with a new generation of weapons intended to avoid missile defenses. And the North hasn’t turned over a list of its weapons, missiles and facilities, which was supposed to be the first step.

Mr. Trump remains convinced that Mr. Kim will be impressed by the prospect of new hotels on the (heavily mined) beaches of North Korea’s east coast. The whole country, he notes, is a great property, with easy access to China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. The only issue is whether he can persuade his new friend to give up the weapons that, in the North Korean leader’s view, have kept him in office. That may mean settling with partial steps — starting with a nuclear freeze — on the way to a bigger deal that may or may not happen.

Prospects for a win: Next to none, unless Mr. Trump changes the goals. It is more likely he will agree to incremental reductions and call it a victory.


ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_160210131_b9fd2d00-0986-4f9a-b012-dc2a82d262e3-articleLarge Trump Wants Big Diplomatic Wins. Here Are the Odds. Xi Jinping United States International Relations Trump, Donald J Russian Interference in 2016 US Elections and Ties to Trump Associates Putin, Vladimir V Nuclear Weapons North Korea Middle East Kim Jong-un Iran General Assembly (UN) Embargoes and Sanctions Bolton, John R Afghanistan

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear technology organization, in April.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

To the Trump administration, there is no more existential threat than Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sees it as the source of virtually all trouble in the Middle East, and Mr. Trump kept insisting to a series of aides that the only way to get a good deal with Iran was to destroy the 2015 nuclear agreement, which he dismissed as “terrible” and a giveaway because it did not forever ban Iran from making nuclear fuel.

Mr. Bolton, who before joining the administration was an advocate of American-led regime change in Iran, was an enthusiast of the “maximum pressure” campaign. And indeed it has been more successful than most experts expected. Iran’s oil revenues have plunged, its economy is shrinking and some of its elites are beginning to wonder whether it’s time to acknowledge the inevitable, which is to negotiate with a president they can’t stand.

All eyes are on the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in 10 days. Mr. Trump and even Mr. Pompeo have said they are ready to negotiate without preconditions, and could meet with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran.

“I do believe they would like to make a deal,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. “If they do, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s great, too.”

He insisted the goal remained the same. “They never will have a nuclear weapon,” he said. “If they are thinking about enrichment, they can forget about it.”

The wild card here is Mr. Rouhani because he is unwilling to meet until sanctions are lifted, or so he says.

Prospects for a win: Not bad. The Iranians have a long history of changing their minds and negotiating when there are no other options. And unlike North Korea, they have no nuclear weapons, so they have less to give up.


Every time Mr. Trump goes to Camp David, he sees pictures of Jimmy Carter, whose cabin-to-cabin diplomacy in 1978 brought peace between Israel and Egypt. Some aides think that inspired Mr. Trump to invite the Taliban — who gave haven to Al Qaeda to plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — to the presidential retreat. Mr. Bolton’s argument that this was a crazy idea precipitated this week’s rupture.

But it’s hardly over. The “peace deal” Mr. Trump is touting isn’t the Camp David accords. It would call for a “reduction in violence” and the beginning of a dialogue about power sharing between the Taliban and the American-backed Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. Few think it will lead to true peace. But it may be enough to give Mr. Trump the chance to significantly reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan.

Prospects for a win: Fairly high. The only people who want American troops out more than Mr. Trump are the Taliban.


President Xi Jinping of China at the Group of 20 summit this year in Osaka, Japan.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

Mr. Trump miscalculated when it came to challenging President Xi Jinping of China: He thought Mr. Xi would fold as tariffs took their toll. So far, Mr. Xi has not folded, and market jitters are a reflection of the fear that the world’s two largest economies could tank simultaneously.

The bigger problem facing the Trump administration is that after nearly 32 months in office, it has no integrated China strategy.

Mr. Pompeo and many in the military establishment view Mr. Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, as determined to spread the country’s influence through Africa, Latin America and, increasingly, Europe — and to use its technology, led by Huawei-produced networks, to exercise control. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other members of the economics team are convinced that Mr. Xi, in the end, will take the best economic deal he can.

And Mr. Trump, forever seeking flexibility, gyrates between these two posts, sometimes declaring China’s progress on 5G networks, artificial intelligence and quantum computing a national security threat, and at other times suggesting that supplying those efforts is up for negotiation.

Prospects for a win: Poor. Mr. Xi is playing a long game, and Mr. Trump is playing for November 2020.


The president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have taken two years to study Middle East peace — “the deal of the century,” Mr. Trump called it — and when they revealed the first part of the plan, it was all about getting wealthy Arab states, among others, to invest tens of billions of dollars in the Palestinian territories, as well as in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

But key decision makers avoided the conference, and with Israel in the midst of its own campaign season, the political side of the plan won’t be released until after the election — if then. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pre-empted the whole proposal this week with his pre-election promise to annex nearly a third of the occupied West Bank — reducing any future Palestinian state to an enclave encircled by Israel.

Prospects for a win: On life support. No evidence supports the idea that Mr. Kushner will succeed where others have failed.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia this month. Mr. Trump pushed for Russia to be allowed back into the Group of 7, despite the country’s annexation of Crimea.CreditMikhail Klimentyev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Alone among his foreign policy advisers, Mr. Trump believes the key to dealing with Russia is reintegration, letting the country back into the Group of 7, forgiving (or ignoring) its annexation of Crimea and never mentioning its effort to influence the 2016 election, a charge he has dismissed as a “hoax.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is gearing up for a fundamental shift in policy in which Russia and China are regarded as “revisionist” states that must be challenged. And the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency say they are constantly creating plans to counter Russian malign influence in the 2020 election.

Mr. Trump argues “there is no reason for this,” and says that with a little help to the Russian economy, President Vladimir V. Putin would be a lot easier to deal with. With Mr. Bolton gone, Mr. Trump may well try to negotiate an extension to the New START treaty, the last remaining arms control agreement between the United States and Russia.

But when it comes to lifting sanctions, Mr. Trump has run into a brick wall with his own party, whose leaders say they have no intention of reversing decades of hawkish views on containment.

Prospects for a win: Mr. Trump is not playing poker here — he’s playing solitaire. The only possible victory is an arms control treaty extension.

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