Trump Says U.S. Was 'Cocked And Loaded' Before He Called Off Strike On Iran : The NPR Politics Podcast President Trump confirmed that he approved a strike on Iran on Thursday after it shot down a U.S. drone but called off the operation after the initial moves were underway. This episode: Congressional reporter Kelsey Snell, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, and Congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.

Trump Says U.S. Was 'Cocked And Loaded' Before He Called Off Strike On Iran

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/734816264/734818543" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KATIE: Hi, this is Katie (ph), calling from my first-grade classroom at Janney Elementary School in Washington, D.C. We are celebrating our last day of first grade. This podcast was recorded at...

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

It's 11:20 a.m. on Friday, June 21.

KATIE: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, and we will be on summer break.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SNELL: Happy summer, everybody.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Happy summer. Happy first day of summer.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Happy summer, yeah.

SNELL: So you were saying it's the longest day of the year, too?

DAVIS: It is, because you have the most sunlight, and I love that because I'm a sunlight person.

SNELL: Ooh, yeah.

DAVIS: So I would like living in, like, Norway or Finland or one of those places where they have daylight, like...

SNELL: Half the year.

DAVIS: Yeah, half the year.

SNELL: Yes. The other half you just got to get out.

RASCOE: That would be bad.

DAVIS: Summertime. I'd love to summer in Finland.

SNELL: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover Congress.

RASCOE: And I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

SNELL: This morning, a lot of people woke up to the news that President Trump had called off an airstrike on Iran. Ayesha, what do we know about what happened there?

RASCOE: So, basically, what we know - that there were some reports, and then President Trump tweeted it out, basically, that he had decided to launch airstrikes against Iran, and that they were ready to go. But he asked what would be the - basically, the civilian casualties for Iran. And he was told it would be 150 people would die if these strikes went through. And so 10 minutes before the strike, according to Trump, he stopped it.

DAVIS: I do think it's worth noting, sort of tonally, how different the president sounded...

RASCOE: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...In his explanation of why he chose to do this. And in it, he cites that he made the calculation - and he alone makes this calculation, as the commander in chief - that he was told 150 people would likely die in the strikes, and he determined that cost of human life was not fair retaliation for - what had prompted the military airstrikes was Iran had shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone. It was unarmed. It was a surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. And that was what had prompted the military action, and that it wasn't worth it.

And it was striking to me because it was just a very empathetic president. This is - you know, Trump's a strongman. He's a tough guy. He's the one that bullies you to the table. He's - takes on his enemies. He's a name-caller, you know. He's all these things. And in his tweets, it wasn't as much the tough, strong Trump as the human, empathetic cost of Trump. And we see this come through in the president most often - very rarely - but most often in these times of military conflict.

The last time he sounded like this - that I could recall, and Ayesha might have some input on this, too - is when he did decide to bomb Syria. And he bombed Syria - and this was well-documented at the time because what prompted him to finally make the call was he was shown videos of children being gassed. And he said publicly that that, to him, had crossed a moral line, and that prompted the bombing. And when it comes to this question of humanity and morality in war, Trump seems at his most conflicted.

RASCOE: Well, and I think that, as far as the language toward Iran, he - President Trump has been kind of all over the place. And just in the past few weeks, he'll threaten them, say there'll be no more Iran. Yesterday, after the drone was shot down, he said they had made a very big mistake. But then, just a few hours later yesterday, he said that maybe it wasn't intentional.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth. I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it. But we'll be able to report back, and you'll understand exactly what happened. But it was a very foolish move, that I can tell you.

RASCOE: And he seemed to be kind of de-escalating a bit, saying that he doesn't see why they would actually do that on purpose, that maybe somebody just kind of got out of line and did this, and that maybe it was an accident.

And then there are times, just in the past few weeks, where he - President Trump has said, oh, Iran is very smart, and they want to come to the table; they want to make a deal, and I'm - I want to help them, and I don't want regime change. He kind of toggles between, I'm very tough, and I'm going to kind of lay down the law on people, and then also this idea of, I don't seem to really want to go to war because he came to president as someone who was campaigned on the idea that we're going to get out of the Middle East.

SNELL: Absolutely.

RASCOE: We're not going to be spending money over there. We're not going to have these endless wars. And so he seems very kind of reticent to follow through with what would - could really escalate into a very massive conflict.

SNELL: Well, this is already an escalation of sorts, right? Because this started when the - when President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. But we talk a little bit about the different things we're hearing from him. But what do we know about what his ultimate goal is with Iran?

RASCOE: So when President Trump talks, he talks about, we cannot allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. But there's also kind of like this, like, 12-point plan that I think came out of the State Department, of all these things that Iran needs to do, that goes beyond that, that kind of focuses on, like, they need to stop, you know, being - engaging and kind of being a bad actor in the region. And so there is a question of how far this administration really wants to go and what their criteria is for Iran. Is it just no nuclear weapons, or do you want them to kind of stop all what the U.S. would consider malign activity?

And this was the issue with the Iran nuclear deal, where arguably Iran was complying with that deal, but the administration just didn't think the nuclear deal went far enough to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also to stop them from engaging in behavior like supporting terrorism. And so this is kind of the larger issue, that it's a question of what exactly the administration hopes to accomplish.

SNELL: Well, when you say the administration, the people who are surrounding the president have changed a little bit - right? - since he first pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. I mean, Sue, what do we know about the people who are talking to the president about this? We hear all the time that he's hearing from a lot of people.

DAVIS: Well, his most close advisers right now on this are the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, who's one of his top advisers. John Bolton is known for being someone who supports a much more interventionist foreign policy and always has. The thing that is complicated about this right now is that this is also an administration that has a federal government that has a lot of vacancies in it, and one of those most important question marks right now is there is no confirmed defense secretary.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced he was leaving this week, under sort of personal conflicts that forced him out of the job. The Secretary of the Army Mark Esper is now the acting secretary of defense. That's one of those jobs that really seems to take on a new level of importance when you're starting to talk about bombing the Middle East.

SNELL: Well, presumably, that person would be in the room while they're making decisions, right?

DAVIS: And the - one of - probably the top adviser to the president on what his decision should be here. Not to say that Mark Esper is unqualified, but it isn't through the process of having a Senate-confirmed, vetted and usually someone who goes through that process to articulate what their strategies of military interaction would be around the world. There's no confirmed U.N. ambassador right now, who is also an important voice in reaching out to the global community when the U.S. decides to make these kinds of decisions.

You know, there's plenty of vacancies in a lot of the sort of operations of the federal government, which is what I think makes people on Capitol Hill, people in the global community a little nervous about where President Trump intends to take this strategy. He's confronting the same problem that every president of our lifetimes has dealt with, which is a hostile Iran with no clear pathway to peace with them.

And dropping bombs on Iran is not something that I think anybody paying attention to this is ready or willing to do eagerly because there is no long-term strategy here yet, right? And if it exists, the public doesn't know it, Congress doesn't know it, and our allies don't know it.

SNELL: Speaking of long-term strategies and congressional confirmations, we're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about what exactly Congress is doing in this situation, what their role is here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SNELL: And we're back. Now the president almost pulled the trigger but decided against it. But is there really anything Congress is doing to oversee all of that, when it comes to these actions, Sue?

DAVIS: No.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: So here's the tricky thing about all of this - and you know, we've probably talked about this in past podcasts, and we've certainly talked about it when presidents have done military airstrikes before - is that the past three presidents have largely operated all military intervention since 9/11 on the same authorization for use of military force that was passed in the days after 9/11.

SNELL: And you will hear people refer to that as the AUMF.

DAVIS: AUMF.

SNELL: And that is - you will hear that shorthand all over Congress right now.

DAVIS: Yes. And so that AUMF provided the legal and military justification, and it was written so broadly that the president's lawyers, all the president's lawyers since, have seen that as pretty much giving the president the latitude he needs to make virtually any military decisions.

SNELL: Because they're talking about terrorism, to be clear

DAVIS: Yes.

SNELL: Like, this - the AUMF, after 9/11, was about global terrorism, and that has been interpreted in a lot of different ways.

DAVIS: And it essentially said - and I'm paraphrasing - but it essentially gave the president the authority to seek out terrorists or anyone who aids and abets them anywhere they may be - any country, any operation. It was not defined to a country or even a group; it was just written to say the president can do what he needs to do to keep us safe from terrorism. Now, legally, I think - and we do know that members of the Trump administration have been up on Capitol Hill recently, again making the case that they see the 2001 AUMF as their legal justification if they needed to take military action on Iran. Now, I would say broadly, even beyond the AUMF, it is pretty well accepted that any president can make limited military airstrikes if he sees the need.

SNELL: Right.

DAVIS: That you don't need congressional approval for every single military action.

SNELL: This is about going to war.

DAVIS: Yes. If you are going to declare the actual declaration of war against a country or a group, that you would need Congress approval; the president doesn't need that if he just wants to drop some retaliatory missiles or bombs on people. President Trump did so against Syria in - already in his first term in President. Congress didn't say he needed to come to them for approval. Sustained military action, putting troops on the ground - any kind of long-term military campaign, congress likes to say they want the president to come and ask for their approval, but Congress has also been really feckless on this regard.

And the times that they have been, you know - at any point, they could take up a new AUMF; they could rescind the old one. Time and time again - and this applies to both parties - there is a real reluctance on Capitol Hill to restrain the commander in chief, to take responsibility for any military decisions and, politically, own the consequences of it. So they've largely been happy. While they may complain about it and they may use it to criticize Trump and the Republicans used it to criticize Obama, they don't really want to take the responsibility.

RASCOE: President Trump will say that he doesn't want to go to war, but isn't there also kind of that question of, like, when you talk about sustained military action, isn't there always that question of when does it become a war?

DAVIS: Yes. Right.

RASCOE: And what - when do you go from limited to we're actually at war? Isn't that always a question?

DAVIS: Sure. And think about it in real terms - let's say Trump said, OK, Congress, take up a debate about military action in Iran; you define what it is. Do you think Capitol Hill wants to have that debate right now, right?

RASCOE: (Laughter) I mean...

DAVIS: Like, they can't agree it's Friday, let alone have to take on the responsibility of owning U.S. military action in Iran. So I think you hear a lot of complaining but very little action towards actually reclaiming the congressional role in being more assertive in making these military decisions.

SNELL: Right. I mean, you land on something here that I think speaks to a broader conflict that Congress is having with the White House right now, is they want to reassert some of their power, but doing that puts them in a really difficult position. And this is even more difficult than, say, you know, deciding that they want more control over spending. They're talking about having control over people's lives.

DAVIS: Yeah.

SNELL: And sending human beings into conflict zones. And you know, Ayesha, on that, do we know if the president wants Congress' input on that, or does he want to continue down this path of being the decider, the one who alone can fix this?

RASCOE: Well, he did talk to members of Congress yesterday about, you know, what was going on with Iran. We don't know if he talked about the strikes or anything; this was before all of that. But - so he did kind of include them. I think when you look at this administration, what you have seen over and over again is that - very much a willingness to do what the president wants, kind of regardless of Congress, or not letting Congress stop them. We've seen this with the wall and the emergency declaration and issues like that.

So I'm not sure, especially with Democrats in control of the House, that you're going to see a lot of push for Congress to kind of define what Trump can do as commander in chief.

SNELL: So this has been a kind of jarring morning, I think, for a lot of people. And Ayesha, I'm wondering if you can just let us know what we think's going to happen next. Do we know what the president is planning?

RASCOE: At this point, just based off what the president said in his tweets, it looks like - at this moment, we don't know exactly, and the White House isn't necessarily commenting - that right now it doesn't seem like a strike is on the table because it wouldn't be proportionate - or proportional to what happened with the drone.

And right now I think that you're going to see this administration talking about - a lot about they want Iran to come to the table; that's what Trump has said, and that's what he seemed to be saying a bit, like we have time, he's in no rush. He's kind of said that before with other - like with North Korea, he often says that - I'm in no rush, but, you know, it'd be great for them to come to the table so we can work this out.

But until then, we're going to keep these sanctions on. So we are expecting to hear more maybe on sanctions, possibly new sanctions or Iran. And from there, it seems like we're going to be kind of in this heightened state until somebody gives or there's some type of break in the tension.

SNELL: And I know that we all will be keeping a close eye on this over the weekend. So for now, that is a wrap, and we'll be back as soon as there's political news that you need to know about. Until then, head to npr.org/politicsnewsletter to subscribe to a roundup of our best online analysis. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover Congress.

RASCOE: And I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

SNELL: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.