President Donald Trump, it appears, has done it again. He’s put himself in a dire situation, one seemingly without an escape hatch, but emerged unscathed, claiming triumph.
In this case, the browbeating President marched his country to the edge of war in the Middle East. He went to the extreme, authorizing the killing of Iran’s top general, and brought hostilities to the brink. But he stood his ground and the other side blinked, firing missiles into empty spaces.
Mr. Trump banked on his intimidating, immense military power to make Iran cower. It served as another example of the motif that runs through his life. He’s too big to fail.
Just like when he fell into horrendous debt in the 1990s, but the banks rescued him because of his outsized brand. He was too big to fail.
Just like when he staged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. He was such an astounding, bullying and compelling force that networks gave him three times the coverage of other candidates, whom he made look puny.
He strong-armed his way through the Stormy Daniels and Access Hollywood scandals. He’ll survive impeachment because his support numbers in the Senate are too big for him to fail. He’s a modern-day mastodon in size, in thrust, in mind. Among presidents, only the swashbuckling Teddy Roosevelt compares as a grandstander, but he was was bright and informed.
Had Mr. Trump made a proportionate response to Iran’s provocations, no near-conflagration would have occurred. But the upshot is that he’s eliminated the adversary’s top general while taking no hit himself. On the face of it, a big win.
But there are countless caveats. Everything could go off the rails. On Thursday, Iran was promising “harsher revenge” for the death of their cult-like military cutthroat.
The upshot also is that relations with Iran and the region have worsened. Iran will no longer be of assistance to the U.S. in combating the Islamic State group. Iranians are now more unified behind their corrupt leadership. There is now great pressure on the U.S. to leave Iraq. Iran is now free to pursue its nuclear ambitions. That’s some kind of victory.
Critical to Mr. Trump’s perception of his winning the confrontation was getting the word out that Iran purposely fired its ballistic missiles off-target, as if they were white flags. It allowed the President to say in his partly slurred address to the world that Iran was “standing down.”
That was news, as we learned shortly thereafter, to none other than General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said he thought the missiles were intended “to kill personnel,” American personnel.
But this blatant contradiction came too late to spoil the victory party. Head-spinning contradictions emerge so often from this White House that they aren’t big news any more.
Mr. Trump was clearly, deliberately exaggerating and misleading the nation with his claim that General Qassem Soleimani posed an imminent threat. After administration briefings on Wednesday, even two Republican senators, Rand Paul and Mike Lee, came forward to say there was scant evidence of such. No doubt Gen. Soleimani had plans to kill Americans, but what top general anywhere doesn’t have plans to take out the enemy?
It’s also clear, as his own words have suggested, that Mr. Trump’s action in killing Gen. Soleimani was in part politically motivated to deflect from the impeachment crisis and to improve his political standing.
Iran was guilty of a series of provocations itself, but none bigger than the killing of Gen. Soleimani and none bigger than Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Tehran. Under the Obama presidency, Iran was being contained, was holding to its commitment.
Obsessed with destroying his predecessor’s reputation, Mr. Trump rolled out so many blatant distortions about that agreement in his brief speech that fact-checkers could barely keep track. In this administration, alternative facts have standing.
But the speech, despite its fabrications, had something for everyone. For hawks, Mr. Trump pledged even harsher sanctions on the regime. For doves, there was a statement that he was “ready to embrace peace.” For others, pressure to put more of the onus on NATO to contain Iran.
For Democrats, it was a bad day. Mr. Trump glowers and towers over them as he does so much else. They are aghast at what he does, at what he gets away with, at how he makes bad look good.
They think it’s got to catch up with him at some point. They’re still waiting.
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