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Facing political risks, Trump tries casting Iranian Quds leader as ‘terrorist ringleader’

Sen. Bernie Sanders: President ‘listened to right-wing extremists’ over national security advisers

President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, on Nov. 4. (Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, on Nov. 4. (Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump spent Friday defending an operation he ordered that killed a top Iranian military commander as his political foes pounced and polling data suggested he took a major political risk.

Trump and top Iranian leaders were in a volatile and potentially deadly standoff Friday afternoon, with the president sending nearly 4,000 additional American troops to the region and Tehran promising harsh revenge for a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, who had led the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Some Republican lawmakers rallied around the GOP president by calling Soleimani a terrorist leader responsible for countless Iraqi and many American deaths. Democrats, though, expressed concern about Trump’s strike potentially setting off a U.S.-Iranian conflict. But the president, as ever, doubled down on his decision to assassinate a senior Iranian military leader 10 months before he will face the voters who will decide whether he should get a second term.

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Onstage with religious supporters, Trump boasted of a “flawless strike” on a “terrorist ringleader” as he sought to cast Soleimani more as a violent extremist than one of Iran’s most powerful military commanders.

“I don’t know if you know what’s going on, but he was planning a vicious attack,” Trump said. “But we got him. … Let this be a warning to terrorists: If you value your own lives, you will not threaten … our citizens.”

Those remarks followed more measured ones as he departed his South Florida resort for an event in Miami with evangelical supporters — but as he left the stage he ignored reporters’ shouted questions for him to explain his rationale. The president spent much of the morning on Twitter, as he often does, playing defense.

[Iranian Quds commander’s assassination to follow Trump back to Washington]

Trump fired off a tweet thread that said Soleimani “should have been taken out many years ago!” The president then charged Soleimani with having “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught!”

And in an earlier tweet that openly mocked the Iranian government, Trump wrote: “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!”

‘Right-wing extremists’

It did not take long for the leading Democratic candidates running to replace him to pounce.

“Unfortunately, Trump ignored the advice of his own security officials, ignored the advice of his own security officials, and listened to right-wing extremists, some of whom were exactly the same people that got us into the war in Iraq in the first place,” resurgent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said at a campaign event in Iowa.

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Although most GOP lawmakers backed his play, the president was lightly criticized by a few vulnerable Republicans who are facing tough reelection fights. One, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, said, “Congress must not be sidelined” on national security matters. (She was briefed on the attack Friday by Vice President Mike Pence, a sign the White House is taking her opinion seriously.) Trump’s late-afternoon appearance on Friday offered him a chance to explain and defend his decision to, in his words, “terminate” the Quds commander.

Most evangelicals are staunch supporters of the president, according to 2020 polling data and 2016 election data.

For instance, a Pew Research Center study of 2016 exit polling data concluded Trump won 81 percent of white evangelical voters. A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey found 99 percent of Republican-leaning white evangelicals oppose Trump’s impeachment and removal. Sixty-three percent of the same group said the 45th president has done nothing to undermine the integrity of the office he occupies, unlike majorities of other religious factions.

Trump will need sizable turnouts from each of the various conservative blocs in key swing states like Florida if he hopes to secure a second term, say political strategists of all ideological stripes.

But even on Trump-friendly Fox News, anchors who typically sing the president’s praises wondered whether the strike would help 2020 Democratic presidential and congressional candidates by giving them the ability to say the president is reckless and shortsighted. Congressional Democrats said the same.

“This air strike … dramatically escalates tensions with Iran and places the tens of thousands of American military forces, diplomats, and embassy staff in the region in even more danger than before,” Senate Foreign Relations member Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a statement.

“The administration’s stated goal for this strike was deterrence, but without a clear strategy and the support of our allies, this attack makes the risk of another large scale military conflict in the Middle East more likely at a time when the American people rightly want to bring more of our men and women in uniform home safely,” Coons added.

‘Straightforward decision’

On a call with reporters, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien described the strike as “something that had been going on for several days,” with the president receiving frequent updates after he had given military commanders the order to go after Soleimani.

It was “a very straightforward decision” once the president and his national security team reviewed the information on Soleimani’s plans, he said.

“The president made a decision that while there is always a risk in taking decisive action, there was a greater risk in not taking action,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien declined to discuss specific targets or evidence of Soleimani’s plots but said they threatened U.S. military personnel and diplomats in the Middle East.

Iranian leaders were aware of Soleimani’s efforts, and O’Brien said he hoped Iran would not choose to escalate the situation by retaliating.

“They know what they were up to. We have the right to self-defense, they understand that,” he said.

‘Middling power’

As Trump tried selling Soleimani’s killing to the evangelical group in Florida, one former U.S. officer urged him to follow the instincts he has flashed since becoming a presidential candidate to remove U.S. forces from the Middle East.

“Iran is a middling power, easily checked by its neighbors. With limited and diminishing U.S. interests at stake in the Middle East, the U.S. should avoid mistakes that bring us closer to war with Iran,” said Daniel Davis, a retired Army officer who served in the region. “Managing the trouble this strike seems likely to produce will further weaken the United States and entangle it in peripheral conflicts disconnected from U.S. security.”

[House retirements already outpace average for past election cycles]

Trump has boasted at political and official White House events about keeping many of his 2016 campaign promises, including cutting taxes, boosting the economy and undoing many of President Barack Obama’s policies. But he has been unable to untangle U.S. forces from the Middle East, sounding notably hawkish on Friday.

“The United States has the best military by far anywhere in the world. We have the best intelligence in the world,” he said from a lectern inside his Mar-a-Lago resort. “If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that in particular refers to Iran.”

But for voters, as the Gallup organization recently concluded, issues like the economy, jobs, the income gap between the wealthy and poor, taxes, wages, corporate corruption, immigration, race relations and others are deemed more important to others than national security and terrorism.

Still, killing the Quds leader likely will poll well with the conservative base he needs to turn out in big numbers come November.

“Expect a continuing stream of rallies and tweets designed to keep his base aroused,” said William Galston, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton. With his foreign policy goals in North Korea and Iran flailing, the Brookings Institution analyst said he “expects a rapid internal policy review and perhaps public statements clarifying and recalibrating U.S. policy.”

Simone Pathé and Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.

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