President Donald Trump is a straight shooter. He consistently shoots himself in the foot.
Having U.S. Special Operations Forces track down Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wasn’t enough for Trump. In recounting the Oct. 26 raid, the former reality TV star claimed that the head of the Islamic State group died “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.” This cinematic detail could not be corroborated by the Defense Department, leaving a pall of falsehood lingering over an undoubted triumph.
Trump’s self-sabotage is even more egregious in the case of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq on Jan. 3. There are multiple legal theories the administration could have used to justify the strike. Soleimani was, after all, one of the leaders of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization that has been responsible for the deaths of an estimated 600 U.S. troops in Iraq — and most recently his proxies were responsible for a rocket attack that killed a U.S. contractor and for an invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
U.S. forces are in Iraq pursuant to a 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, and although that congressional resolution was aimed at Saddam Hussein, it was worded broadly enough to be cited by the Obama administration when it needed a rationale for sending U.S. troops to fight the Islamic State. President Barack Obama’s lawyers could point to the portion of the resolution that authorized action to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” (A tip of my fedora to New York University law professor Ryan Goodman for pointing this out to me.) Trump could use the same wording. Obama also invoked the president’s general authority as commander in chief to act in the “national interest” by bombing Libya even without congressional authorization. Trump could easily have made a similar claim to justify the killing of Soleimani, and no one, aside from a few international lawyers, would have been much perturbed.
But no. To satisfy the legal standard for a preemptive military strike, the Trump administration decided to claim that it was acting to disrupt an “imminent” attack on U.S. personnel but refused to release any intelligence to buttress its case. Even after lawmakers expressed skepticism based on the briefings they received — Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, called it “the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue” — Trump felt compelled to double down.
So he went from claiming that Soleimani was about to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to claiming he was about to bomb four U.S. embassies. At the rate Trump is going, by Monday he may well be claiming that Soleimani was going to bomb 40 embassies. But my Washington Post colleagues Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim report that “a senior administration official and a senior defense official” that they spoke with “were only aware of vague intelligence about a plot against the embassy in Baghdad and that the information did not suggest a fully formed plot. Neither official said there were threats against multiple embassies.”
It sure sounds as if Trump is lying — for roughly the 15,000th time. That impression is further buttressed by the lame and shifting explanations offered by his point person on Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Our slippery secretary of state told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that “there were a series of imminent attacks,” but “we don’t know precisely when, and we don’t know precisely where.” Umm, if you don’t know where or when the attacks were going to occur, how do you know they were “imminent”? When pressed by reporters to define “imminent,” Pompeo retreated into vague generalities, saying, “This was gonna happen and American lives were at risk.”
Our disingenuous secretary of defense, Mark Esper, admitted on Sunday that he “didn’t see” the intelligence about Iran trying to bomb four embassies but said we should accept Trump’s belief that “it probably could have been” so. Should we also take on faith the president’s belief that a hurricane was going to hit Alabama? Or that the Democratic National Committee may have been hacked not by the Russians but by a 400-pound coach potato?
The last nail in the coffin of the “imminent” attack story was actually delivered Friday when The Post reported that U.S. forces had tried to kill a senior Quds Force commander in Yemen on the very same day that Soleimani was killed in Iraq. This begins to look more like an ambitious and premeditated campaign to decapitate the Quds Force rather than a response to a looming threat.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. What the administration is doing is legally — and perhaps even strategically — justifiable. All Trump has to do is come clean with the American people. In this case — unlike in his dealings with Ukraine or Stormy Daniels — it seems doubtful that he has anything disreputable to hide. Yet Trump continues to sabotage his own cause by lying simply because it is his default mode of communication. He thereby distracts attention from what can be presented as a rare foreign policy win to focus attention back on one of his biggest weaknesses: his congenital dishonesty. Oh! What a tangled web Trump weaves when first he practices to deceive.