At the most basic level, the reasons President Donald Trump decided to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani are simple: Soleimani was responsible for killing and maiming many Americans, the U.S. saw him as an agent of instability in the Middle East, and Trump was concerned about proving to Iran that he was not weak.
And yet the administration has struggled mightily to explain why the U.S. acted when it did. Initially, the government said it struck to prevent an “imminent” attack Soleimani was planning. Then anonymous doubts about how close any strike really was emerged.
When members of Congress lashed out at the administration for its vagueness, Vice President Mike Pence said intelligence involved was too sensitive to share—yet Trump then blurted out, in an interview with Laura Ingraham, “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies.” Then Defense Secretary Mark Esper said over the weekend that he hadn’t seen any such intelligence, which raises doubts about whether it really exists. On Monday, Trump said it didn’t even matter whether the threat was imminent. Why, then, did he insist so strenuously that it was?
For years, critics have wondered what would happen when Trump faced a genuine crisis without the benefit of the credibility he had long since squandered. The first three years of the administration passed with surprisingly few crisis moments (other than self-inflicted domestic ones), but the flare-up with Iran seemed like it might be the test.
Just as predicted, Trump’s claims about the assassination have been received with skepticism, and appear increasingly implausible. Contrary to predictions, this hasn’t mattered a great deal so far. The predictions of a World War III seem, at least for now, highly overblown. Iran’s initial revenge was tempered and short, more symbolic than menacing, and both sides seem eager to de-escalate. Trump has been helped in this respect by the Iranian government, which has underlined its own massive credibility problems by initially lying about the horrific accidental downing of a passenger plane over Tehran.
Yet if the shortest summary of the current moment is Trump got Soleimani, and paid little price for it, the president has also received strikingly little political benefit. An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Sunday found that 56 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the Iran crisis, versus 43 percent who approve. A USA Today/Ipsos poll released January 9 found that a majority (52 percent) consider Trump’s Iran policy “reckless”; 42 percent support the policy. The best poll for Trump, from HuffPost and YouGov, immediately after the strike, found that only 43 percent supported it, versus 38 percent who disapproved. It’s probably not a coincidence that these numbers tend to mirror the president’s approval rating. Trump has consistently won the approval of 40-ish percent of the population, and the disapproval of 53 percent or so.
One might expect that hostilities with a foreign nation, and the relatively surgical killing of a consistent thorn in America’s side, would induce the country to rally around the president. But that hasn’t happened. Not only has Trump not reaped much political benefit; the affair may have hurt him. (The president’s approval, which hit its highest point since March 2017 the day he was impeached, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average, has slid back down again amid the Iran crisis.)
This is the story of the Trump presidency, yet again. Every matter of public opinion has become merely a referendum on Trump: Do you like him? Then you like this. Do you dislike him? Then you dislike this. And since most people dislike Trump, that means most people disapprove of most of the things he does. It’s not right to say that Trump hasn’t paid any penalty for his lack of credibility; it’s right there in the unshakable majority who disapprove of whatever he does. But there doesn’t seem to be a new penalty.
The president’s string of wounded, peevish missives suggests that he realizes he’s not getting much of a polling bump, and he’s angry about it. The president seems to have misread the situation: He’s too polarizing for anything to move the needle very far.
Who knows whether this really was the crisis that was foretold. As I have written, the many flawed processes that contributed to the strike are disturbing. Maybe Trump just got lucky that this encounter didn’t boil over. Maybe he perfectly calculated how to handle the situation. Maybe there’s still another disaster to come. For the moment, no confrontation seems to have the power to hurt Trump all that much—or to help him.