Donald Trump takes the off-ramp in Iran confrontation (for now)

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(CNN) — President Donald Trump decided Wednesday that taking his foot off the gas in the rapidly escalating conflict between the United States and Iran was the right move.

Flanked by the Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a legion of high-ranking military officers, Trump spoke carefully from two teleprompters set up in the back of the room — delivering the message that, despite Iran launching more than a dozen missile strikes at two sites in Iraq less than 24 hours ago, he was comfortable with calling an end to the outright hostilities.

“The American people should be extremely grateful and happy,” Trump said, noting that no Americans or Iraqis had been killed in the strikes. He added: “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties and a good thing for the world.”

Trump’s embrace of de-escalation was presaged by comments made by two Republican senators with his ear.

“In my view, retaliation for the sake of retaliation is not necessary at this time,” tweeted South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham just hours before Trump spoke to the country. “What is necessary is to lay out our strategic objectives regarding Iran in a simple and firm fashion.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters just before Trump spoke that he had talked to the President on Tuesday night. “I’m grateful for his patience and prudence as he and his Cabinet deliberate how to respond appropriately to the latest Iranian provocation,” said McConnell. “As a superpower, we have the capacity to exercise restraint and to respond at a time and place of our choosing, if need be.”

Trump’s measured tone on Wednesday was a striking contrast to his approach to the Iranians just days ago on Twitter.

Tweeted Trump just this past Saturday: “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”

It’s not clear what had changed Trump’s mind — and tone — over the days between those tweets and his address on Wednesday. Perhaps it was that the missile strikes resulted in no deaths. Or that the Iranians had given Iraq a heads up that the strikes were coming. Or that Trump’s administration has grown increasingly certain that Iran purposely targeted sites and areas where no one would be killed as a way to retaliate for the killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani without starting a broader conflict.

What was clear throughout Trump’s speech on Wednesday was that he did not want to be perceived as backing down from an enemy. The first words he uttered were: “As long as I am president, Iran will never have a nuclear weapon.” And within minutes, he echoed his initial statement: “Iran has been the leading sponsor of terrorism and their pursuit of nuclear weapons threatens the civilized world. We will never let that happen.”

Trump also announced that he would be instituting more “powerful” economic sanctions and called on other world leaders — the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Russia — to do more to reign in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He talked about the “big, accurate, powerful, lethal and fast” missiles at the US’s disposal and its overwhelming military might before adding: “We do not want to use it.”

Trump also repeatedly noted that he was doing things that should have been done by past presidents. “Soleimani’s hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood,” said Trump at one point. “He should have been terminated long ago.” At another, he claimed that “the missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” (It’s not clear how Trump would know that; he appeared to be referring more broadly to the money paid to Iran by the United States as part of a broader de-nuclearization deal.)

This isn’t your father’s (or Obama’s or Bush’s) United States, Trump seemed to be saying. We are de-escalating for the moment. But don’t assume that we won’t re-escalate if you, Iran, keep poking at us.

Given Trump’s unpredictability — in literally all things — it’s a message that probably reflects his natural instincts. He’ll back off — for now. He’ll play nice — for now. But he won’t let any person or nation make a fool out of him (or, by extension, the United States). Not ever.

So for today, Trump took the off-ramp that the Iranians afforded him by not killing any Americans with its missile strikes. Tomorrow? Honestly, who knows.

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