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.”
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.
‘Loose and Stupid’
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.
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.
‘The Order Didn’t Come’
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.”
‘The Most Reluctant’
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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