A half-hour away: How Trump opted against Iran strike

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - LIFE+TIMES - By JONATHAN LEMIRE, LISA MASCARO and DEB RIECH­MANN As­so­ci­ated Press

WASH­ING­TON >> The planes were ready — their deadly cargo poised for de­liv­ery within a half-hour.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump had been given a se­ries of op­tions Thurs­day night on how to re­spond to Iran’s down­ing of an un­manned Amer­i­can sur­veil­lance drone. Senior mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers ze­roed in on a plan to launch strikes on a trio of sites within Iran, and it was up to Trump to give the fi­nal go-ahead.

If the planes took off, Trump later re­counted to NBC, they would soon be at “a point where you wouldn’t turn back or couldn’t turn back.”

Trump’s de­ci­sion point came at the cul­mi­na­tion of a tense 24 hours in­side the West Wing af­ter the drone went down.

How would he make his de­ci­sion? “My gut,” he told leg­is­la­tors.

When the mil­i­tary of­fi­cers came look­ing for the pres­i­dent’s fi­nal go-ahead, Trump said he had one last ques­tion.

“‘I want to know some­thing be­fore you go,’” Trump re­counted. “‘How many peo­ple will be killed?’”

This account is based on in­for­ma­tion from more than a dozen leg­is­la­tors, con­gres­sional aides, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and oth­ers, some of whom spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions. ••• Hours ear­lier, a model of a pro­posed new Air Force One was perched on the cof­fee ta­ble in the Oval Of­fice. Its Trump-de­signed red, white and blue color scheme glis­tened under the Oval Of­fice lights.

Seated behind the plane were Trump and Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, whose visit to Wash­ing­ton on Thurs­day to dis­cuss trade and tar­iffs was sud­denly up­staged by the rising ten­sions in the Mid­dle East. With reporters pep­per­ing Trump with a ca­coph­ony of ques­tions about how he would re­spond to Tehran, the pres­i­dent took a mo­ment to ex­toll the virtues of the new pres­i­den­tial plane. “It’s go­ing to be terrific,” he de­clared.

But what to do Iran?

“You’ll find out. You’ll find out,” Trump said. “They made a very big mis­take.”

The pres­i­dent, who had just come from a brief­ing on the in­ci­dent, seemed to tele­graph what he had learned, declar­ing, “I find it hard to be­lieve it was in­ten­tional, if you want to know the truth.”

“I think that it could have been some­body who was loose and stupid that did it.”

Over a year ear­lier, Trump had de­fied most of the United States’ al­lies by pulling out of the Iran nu­clear deal and strength­en­ing sanc­tions on the regime, chok­ing the Ira­nian econ­omy and push­ing Tehran to es­ca­late ten­sions. Trudeau, who largely looked on in si­lence while Trump fielded ques­tions, used his brief re­marks to high­light the need for close co­or­di­na­tion among na­tions. about

“We look for­ward to dis­cussing with our clos­est ally — their per­spec­tives on this — and how we can move for­ward as an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity,” the Cana­dian prime min­is­ter said.

Trump, for his part, made no men­tion of al­liances. ••• Trudeau’s meet­ing later that af­ter­noon with Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell was abruptly can­celled when McCon­nell was sum­moned to the White House for a brief­ing on Iran.

But there was a glar­ing omis­sion on the in­vi­ta­tion list for brief­ing top con­gres­sional lead­ers and na­tional se­cu­rity com­mit­tee chair­men.

The heads of the House and Se­nate for­eign re­la­tions com­mit­tees were quickly added once the White House was re­minded the pan­els have ju­ris­dic­tion over the War Pow­ers Act, ac­cord­ing to a con­gres­sional aide fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion.

Once as­sem­bled, the law­mak­ers around the ta­ble made their case, one by one. Trump seemed ea­ger to hear their opin­ions, even those of House Democrats who have launched a slew of in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the pres­i­dent.

“These con­flicts have a way of es­ca­lat­ing,” Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer told the pres­i­dent. Even if Trump didn’t in­tend to go to war, Schumer said, he could “bum­ble” into one.

The leg­is­la­tors saw “a com­man­der in chief who strug­gled with the is­sue,” said Repub­li­can Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the chair­man of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee. “It was pain­ful for him.”

Democrats made the case for cau­tion, for part­ner­ing with al­lies, for tak­ing a breath to de-es­ca­late, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would put it later. In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Rep. Adam Schiff told the ad­min­is­tra­tion it could not con­tinue to rely on the war au­tho­riza­tions ap­proved by Congress af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001 ter­ror at­tacks.

White House reporters and photograph­ers trained their eyes on a West Wing side door where the leg­is­la­tors would emerge, look­ing for any clues to what had tran­spired. When the leg­is­la­tors did turn up, there was a per­plex­ing im­age: Schumer pumped his arms sky­ward in a cel­e­bra­tory “raise the roof” ges­ture while Pelosi cheer­fully clapped.

Had the Democrats talked the pres­i­dent out of war? Had some sort of deal been struck?

Nei­ther. It turned out Schumer had just re­layed the happy news that his el­derly mother had been re­leased from the hos­pi­tal.

“We left with the idea the pres­i­dent was go­ing to con­sider some op­tions,” Pelosi said. ••• Tele­vi­sions across the White House were tuned, as usual, to Fox News. Tucker Carlson’s im­age flick­ered on the screen as he made his case ear­lier in the week against go­ing to war with Iran.

Carlson was mak­ing a sim­i­lar case to Trump in pri­vate, ac­cord­ing to a White House of­fi­cial and a Repub­li­can close to the West Wing.

Trump had been so­lic­it­ing a wide ar­ray of opin­ions about Iran af­ter a pair of tankers were dam­aged a week ear­lier near the Strait of Hor­muz, an in­ci­dent U.S. of­fi­cials blamed on the Ira­ni­ans. The pres­i­dent was grow­ing frus­trated with his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton’s ad­vo­cacy for a strike, the of­fi­cials said.

The at­tack on the drone put the mil­i­tary op­tion on the ta­ble.

But when Trump asked his ques­tion Thurs­day about how many Ira­ni­ans could die in the strikes, the an­swer gave him pause. He was told 150 Ira­nian lives were at stake.

“I thought about it for a sec­ond,” Trump told NBC, “and I said: ‘You know what? They shot down an un­manned drone, plane, what­ever you want to call it. And here we are sit­ting with 150 dead peo­ple that would have taken place prob­a­bly within a half an hour af­ter I said go ahead.’ And I didn’t like it. I didn’t think, I didn’t think it was pro­por­tion­ate.”

The pres­i­dent, long op­posed to be­ing drawn into a mil­i­tary con­flict in the Mid­dle East and in par­tic­u­lar with an un­pre­dictable foe like Iran, played up the drama of the mo­ment. He tweeted Fri­day morn­ing that the mil­i­tary had been “cocked and loaded” and that the weaponry was only 10 min­utes away from be­ing de­ployed.

As the day went on, a sense of nor­malcy returned to the White House.

On Fri­day af­ter­noon, law­mak­ers fil­tered into the White House south lawn for the an­nual con­gres­sional pic­nic — just steps away from the win­dow­less, base­ment Sit­u­a­tion Room where se­cu­rity of­fi­cials had de­bated what could come next.

EVAN VUCCI

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump talks to reporters dur­ing a meet­ing with Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau in the Oval Of­fice of the White House, Thurs­day, June 20, 2019, in Wash­ing­ton.

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