WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday he abruptly canceled a planned U.S. missile strike against three Iranian targets “10 minutes before” it was set to launch because he was told the raid would likely kill 150 Iranians.
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights,” Trump tweeted. “When I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General.”
Later in the day, in an interview with NBC News, Trump offered a somewhat different account, saying that he called off the strike about “30 minutes” before it would have been irreversible.
The aborted U.S. attack was planned in retaliation for the Iranian shoot-down before dawn Thursday of an unarmed U.S. military surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial waterway for oil shipping.
Iran said it launched a ground-to-air missile because the unmanned aircraft was in its airspace, while the Pentagon said the jet-powered Navy drone was hit over international waters. Both sides offered competing maps and videos to buttress their claims.
Trump argued that the planned U.S. retaliation was “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.” He suggested that he would not reverse his decision anytime soon, and that the U.S. was adding economic sanctions instead.
“I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world,” he wrote. “Sanctions are biting & more added last night.”
The incident dramatically highlighted how Trump appears caught between his own isolationist leanings and the more hawkish instincts of his top national security adviser, John Bolton, and the broader GOP national security establishment, which desires a U.S. military response.
Trump’s last-minute pullback, which leaked Thursday night to news outlets, was hailed by those who feared U.S. airstrikes would soon escalate into an armed conflict with Iran, and criticized by those — including some Republicans — who compared his second-guessing to President Barack Obama’s decision not to use force in Syria in 2012.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a former Air Force pilot, said Trump’s decision not to respond to what the lawmaker called “a direct attack on U.S. assets” was a disappointment.
“If there is no reaction and we think we can negotiate, it will be a bad move,” he said. “To shoot down a $200 million plane the size of an airliner that easily could have had 35 people on it, there needs to be a response.”
On the other side, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a former Navy SEAL, said that Trump’s actions had demonstrated U.S. resolve without escalating the conflict.
“Whether intentional or not, we now have the best of both worlds: There is a clear indication that we’re willing to strike and retaliate when they hit us,” he said. At the same time, Trump was, in effect, telling Iran, ‘I control the narrative, I control the escalation and I will give you a second chance.’
“I think the president was uncomfortable with taking human lives when they didn’t take human lives. I think that’s a reasonable position to take,” Crenshaw said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a statement Friday that implicitly criticized Trump for a lack of clear strategy.
“We are in an extremely dangerous and sensitive situation with Iran. We must calibrate a response that de-escalates and advances American interests, and we must be clear as to what those interests are,” Pelosi said.
“We have no illusions about the dangerous conduct of the Iranian regime,” she added. “This is a dangerous, high-tension situation that requires a strong, smart and strategic approach.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump’s chief allies on Capitol Hill, said he now thought Trump should declare that Iranian action to resume enrichment of uranium would be a “red line” justifying a military strike.
The arguments about Trump’s actions closely recapitulated some of the disagreements over Obama’s decision to back away from a military strike against Syria after that country’s government used poison gas and killed several hundred people in its civil war.
Obama had said a poison gas attack would violate a U.S. “red line.” Trump was harshly critical of his failure to follow through.
One of Obama’s national security aides, Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Twitter that Trump had “made the right decision” although he questioned why the president had not been informed about the potential casualty count until the last minute.
Trump’s only known authorized use of military force has been in Syria, where he twice approved limited missile strikes in response to poison gas attacks on civilians.
The president publicly revealed his decision in a series of striking tweets that purported to outline his thinking and decisions in the latest flare-up with Iran.
He later amplified, and somewhat revised, his account in the interview with NBC.
“Nothing was green-lighted until the very end because things change,” he said.
Asked if planes were in the air when he decided against the strike, Trump said: “No, but they would have been pretty soon, and things would have happened to a point where you would not turn back, you could not turn back.”
He repeated that he called off the strike because of the potential casualties.
“I thought about it for a second 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,” Trump said.
“And I didn’t like it, I didn’t think, I didn’t think it was proportionate.”
In public comments Thursday, the president had emphasized that “it would have made a big difference” if Iran had downed a piloted aircraft or caused U.S. casualties.
He also said Thursday that Iran’s missile launch was probably unintentional and “a mistake,” giving Tehran breathing room in the tense standoff even though senior Iranian officials and commanders had already made clear the attack was deliberate.
It would be unusual for a president to ask only in the late planning stages of a military strike about the number of potential casualties.
“The thing in his tweets that’s really alarming is when he says ‘10 minutes before’ the strike he asked how many people would die,” said Elizabeth Saunders, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “An experienced leader would be asking that hours before that.”
One Trump campaign associate Friday expressed relief that the president called off the strike, even while casting doubt on whether the White House narrative was true.
“The MAGA crowd is really anti-war, so there’s a lot of relief,” the person said, using the acronym for Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. “Whether it happened the way he’s saying it did, which I doubt, is sort of secondary.”
On the other side, some of Trump’s staunchest defenders in conservative media took issue with his apparent reversal.
“There’s a price to pay for inaction,” said Brian Kilmeade, the host of Trump’s preferred morning TV show, “Fox & Friends,” during an impassioned monologue Friday morning.
“They blow up four tankers and we do nothing. When they blow up our drone that costs $130 million and we do nothing, we know it’s not going to end there. So at some point, in the Middle East, no action looks like weakness, and weakness begets more attacks.”
The U.S. has blamed Iran for a series of attacks on oil tankers. None of the attacks caused the ships to sink or resulted in casualties.
Trump did not officially declare a red line for Iran but has used bellicose language, frequently citing the Islamic regime as a destabilizing and malicious force in the Middle East.
After Trump’s tweet, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted that “a war with Iran would be a disaster and lead to endless conflict in the region.”
He said “Congress must assert its constitutional authority and stop Trump from going to war.”
While Trump’s decision could quell such criticism, it also runs the risk of making him look indecisive in the face of what the Pentagon has called an unprovoked attack in international airspace.
Trump, pushing back against hawks inside and outside his administration, insisted that Iran was fundamentally weakened by the tight web of sanctions his administration has imposed in the 13 months since he pulled out of the 2015 multinational agreement intended to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!” Trump tweeted.
Iranian officials portrayed the drone attack as a victory, one that had led the U.S. to blink in a regional game of chicken.
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said Iran could have targeted another U.S. plane, a Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft, but chose not to do so.
“This plane also entered our airspace, and we could have targeted it,” Hajizadeh said, “but we did not because our purpose behind shooting down the American drone was to give a warning to terrorist American forces.”
Other government figures refuted a Reuters report on backchannel communications between Iran and the U.S., while in the capital, Tehran, state clerics kept up a barrage of fiery Friday sermons insisting that Iran had acted correctly.
State cleric Mohammad Haj Ali Akbar said the downed drone “was a message about Iran’s authority and security.”
“Watch your behavior!” he warned the U.S.
“We will not start a war. But if you start a war, you will not be able to finish it.”
He also blamed the U.S. for the attack on the pair of tankers last week, saying that “unlike you, our nation and army do not hide what we do.”
“If we strike, we do it in a good time and announce the attack,” Akbar said.
(Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington contributed to this report.)
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