ANALYSIS — There are two things White House and Trump campaign officials have not wanted to discuss when it comes to President Donald Trump’s reelection chances: An economic recession and a military conflict. Suddenly, the latter is possible.
The president’s top aides have acknowledged an economic slowdown would undermine the president’s top claim that he’s earned a second term. That’s because he leads almost every public event — no matter the topic — by touting the low unemployment and record-high stock market levels.
Questions about economic inequality and other data points that suggest all Americans are not benefiting from Trump’s economic policies are quickly brushed aside by aides. And when reporters ask about a shooting conflict with Iran or North Korea, the same aides often point out the boss campaigned on keeping the United States out of wars that he said cost the country too much in blood and treasure.
In fact, Trump himself, on the final day of 2019, signaled amid new tensions with Iran — this time inside Iraq — he would aim to steer clear of a war with Tehran. “I don’t think that would be a good idea for Iran. … I like peace,” he told reporters on Dec. 31 at his south Florida resort. “I don’t see that happening.”
Then protesters swarmed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad following U.S. airstrikes Trump ordered in retaliation to what he claimed was an attack by an Iranian-backed militia group that killed an American contractor.
Trump decided to send Iranian leaders a clear message, ordering a drone strike Thursday night that killed a top Iranian military commander and left the sound of war drums echoing from Washington to Tehran and beyond. The president is due back in Washington next week. Here are three things to watch:
When Marine One ferries Trump back to the executive mansion next week, the government in Tehran already could have retaliated. And he could have retaliated again.
Top Iranian leaders in a Friday statement vowed “harsh revenge” for the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who had led the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
In Europe, officials called on Trump and Iranian leaders to tamp down tensions. Trump followed those calls by mocking Tehran.
“Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” Trump tweeted at one point. He later fired off a tweet thread defending the strike, saying the Quds leader “should have been taken out many years ago!” Trump 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!”
There’s Iran’s response. And then there is that of U.S. lawmakers, with Democrats already calling the assassination reckless and possibly illegal.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2020
“This could be the most significant foreign leader that the United States has ever assassinated.” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, told MSNBC on Thursday night.
But Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, who was seen by reporters at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort earlier this week, told Fox News on Friday morning he “was briefed about the potential operation when I was down in Florida.” Also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, the South Carolina Republican has become a top Trump ally and has pressed the president to be more forceful with Iran.
Congressional Democrats and members of the party running to oust Trump agreed that Soleimani was an enemy — but they warned the rapidly escalating conflict could spin out of control quickly.
“The administration’s statement says that its goal is to deter future attacks by Iran, but this action almost certainly will have the opposite effect,” said former Vice President Joe Biden. “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.”
When the House and Senate get back to work in earnest next week, the strike could lead to what has become something of an annual ritual in Washington: an effort — likely to end with frustrated members unable to agree on the definition of key but legally murky terms — to craft an updated force-authorization measure.
Many have argued for years the one passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is too legally flexible and outdated. None have been able to broker a deal on a new one, however.
“There’s a question of the authorization,” Murphy added, noting it would not be authorized unless there was an imminent attack. To that end, U.S. national security officials claimed Soleimani was planning attacks on American interests.
But it’s unlikely there was anything close to the kind of support among GOP senators to limit a Republican president’s war powers in an election year.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN Friday morning the strike was needed to stop an “imminent attack” on American interests, calling Trump’s decision “intelligence-based.”
All the alleged threats related to the Quds commander were in the Middle East — not inside the United States, Pompeo said, saying his boss has shown “restraint” amid Iran’s hostile actions. He called the risks of not carrying out Thursday night’s attack “enormous.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that the assassination strike “risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence,” adding the United States “cannot afford to have tensions escalate to the point of no return.” She also questioned whether the attack was legal and noted the administration did not first consult with members.
Like other Democrats, she demanded all lawmakers be briefed on the attack and any planned “next steps.” They’re calling for briefings about the administration’s Iran strategy and the intelligence behind the attack it says Soleimani was plotting.
The authorization for the use of military force passed shortly after the 9/11 attacks and signed into law by then-President George W. Bush has been used by three presidents to justify all sorts of U.S. military strikes in the Middle East and southwest Asia. Two words in the hastily crafted document have given Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump ample legal leeway: “associated forces.”
Because Iran and other governments have at times allied with al-Qaida or its direct descendants, like the Islamic State, many legal and national security scholars — some reluctantly — say the AUMF provides significant legal cover for attacks like the one that killed Soleimani. What’s more, the Trump administration in April designated the Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.
As if Trump’s simmering conflict with the country that boasts perhaps the most powerful military in the Middle East isn’t enough to occupy Washington, he will return to the capital still in limbo over a possible Senate impeachment trial.
Pelosi is holding two impeachment articles Democrats passed last month, saying she won’t transmit them to the Senate until Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agrees to a fair trial. She wants current former administration witnesses called; McConnell would prefer a speedy trial without witnesses that puts the impeachment matter behind Trump — and vulnerable members of his caucus in an election year as he tries to hold his majority.
McConnell appears dug in, and one former White House official doubts the president will break with the majority leader by demanding he allow witnesses.
“When it comes down to it, Trump won’t buck McConnell on the Senate trial,” said William Galston, a former adviser to then-President Bill Clinton. “If Mitch tells him that the votes aren’t there for his witness list, or he can’t get his witnesses unless the Democrats get theirs, or Republican senators in tough races don’t want a long trial, the president will grumble but give in.”
Trump does most things with his conservative political base in mind. Despite Democrats’ collective hand-wringing about the assassination strike and the lack of a direct congressional authorization for it, taking out the Quds commander will be popular among conservatives — and even more moderate Republicans who are hawkish on national security and foreign policy matters.
Expect Trump as early as Friday evening, when he is slated to address an evangelical group in Florida, to use the strike to rev up his base. The same is true of his House-approved trade pact with Canada and Mexico.
“As the pre-Christmas flurry of agreements on USMCA, China, and the budget indicate, President Trump is in full campaign mode,” Galston said. “Expect a continuing stream of rallies and tweets designed to keep his base aroused.”