OP-ED: The crisis education of a president

Martin Schram
Tribune News Service
Coffins of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades who were killed in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike, are carried on a truck surrounded by mourners during a funeral procession, in the city of Mashhad, Iran, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. Soleimani's death Friday in Iraq further heightens tensions between Tehran and Washington after months of trading attacks and threats that put the wider Middle East on edge. (Mohammad Hossein Thaghi/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

The education of Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump began on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.

That’s when Candidate Trump went on the TV show of conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, who began by asking about the perils posed by the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. As the master of operations who for years spread terror and slaughter through proxy warfare in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, Soleimani’s roadside bombs killed hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq.

“Are you familiar with Gen. Soleimani?” Hewitt began. But in 2015, Trump clearly didn’t know who Hewitt was talking about. So he stalled: “Yes, but go ahead, give me a little, go ahead, tell me.”

“He runs the Quds Forces,” Hewitt helpfully hinted.

“Yes, okay, right,” Trump replied. “The Kurds, by the way, have been horribly mistreated by …”

“No, not the Kurds, the Quds Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Forces,” Hewitt explained. Sensing it was sounding like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first,” Hewitt elaborated: “… the bad guys.”

“Right,” Trump opined, obviously still stalling. So Hewitt added some helpful context:

More:Trump insists cultural sites in Iran are fair game

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“Well, Soleimani is to terrorism sort of what Trump is to real estate,” Hewitt explained. “… Many people would say he’s the most dangerous man in the world …”

Trump got it. So he explained why none of that mattered: “You know, those are like history questions. ‘Do you know this one?’ ‘Do you know that one?’” Trump’s bottom line: “I think by the time we get to office, they’ll … be all gone.”

But when Trump was inaugurated as president, Gen. Soleimani was still there, spreading terror. Trump ended up confronting Iran’s apparent assault of an oil tanker, Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone and Iran’s apparent airstrikes on Saudi Arabian oil installations. When Trump ordered a retaliatory military response — but then cancelled it — world commentators warned that Iran surely concluded Trump was just a paperless (see also: toothless) Twitter tiger.

Then, this week, on New Year’s Eve, the whole world watched Iran shaming America and its president as an Iranian-supported militia, posing as protesters, stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. They threw torches to burn parts of the visitor’s building and actually broke into the embassy compound. America looked helpless. Worse for Trump, it looked like a rerun of the Benghazi, Libya, tragedy that Trump and other Republicans used to attack then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for letting America appear helpless — as armed raiders assassinated a U.S. ambassador.

Provoked to the extreme by Iran, Trump issued the hardest-line order that should have surprised no one — but seemed to surprise everyone. He ordered a U.S. military drone strike to assassinate Iran’s commander, spymaster and politically feared and revered regional icon: Gen. Soleimani. Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had rejected similar opportunities, concerned about the potential devastation it could unleash in the Middle East when Iran retaliates with proxy warfare, cyberwarfare and/or full-scale warfare.

On Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, near Baghdad International Airport, a U.S. military drone strike blew up the two-car caravan carrying Soleimani and several Iraqi militia leaders. Trump officials quickly said Trump had been warned by intelligence (the same ones Trump repeatedly disparaged when they warned us about Russia’s Vladimir Putin) that Soleimani was planning a new major terror operation in the region. That’s why Trump ordered the assassination, they said.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood on the Senate floor surrounded by empty seats and began praising Trump’s leadership decision. He said America must redouble its vigilance in this perilous time — and without even a pause, McConnell went on to attack Democrats for pushing President Trump’s impeachment at this moment.

Back in 1998, just months after Hollywood released the “Wag the Dog” movie about a president who starts a war to divert us from his sex scandal, President Bill Clinton seemed to do just that. Clinton ordered airstrikes in Afghanistan and Sudan while Congress was about to impeach Clinton for lying under oath about his sex life.

Of course, Republicans questioned whether Clinton’s attacks were his “wag the dog” moment. In 2012, Trump launched several tweets echoing this Oct. 12, 2012, theme: “Don’t let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected — be careful Republicans!”

McConnell’s unsubtle linkage of Trump’s Senate impeachment trial and his assassination response to a horrific Mideast crisis where no one died was bizarre and even mind-boggling.

Trump’s response to a very real crisis was surely no “wag the dog” fiction. But the Senate’s top Republican did his president no favors by making the world wonder if the assassination response ordered by an impeachment-beset president might someday be revealed to have been a ploy that used convenient truth to create, for Trump, a helpful wag-the-dogma moment.

— Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at