Typically, when the U.S. is threatened—as the Trump administration says it was with an “imminent” Soleimani-planned attack—voters have tended to stand behind the president. George W. Bush’s approval rating jumped about 40 points, reaching 90 percent, in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to Gallup. (The good feeling didn’t last: As Bush’s Iraq War soured, so did his approval rating, though he won a second term.) His father, George H. W. Bush, enjoyed 74 percent approval in 1990 after he sent troops to the Middle East following the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. (Two years later, Bush lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.)
Trump, though, is a unique case. His approval rating has never cracked 50 percent in Gallup surveys, and experts on the presidency have rated him the most polarizing chief executive in history. Trump’s handling of the crisis will test the reflexive loyalty Americans show in such fraught times. It’s not at all clear that, outside of Trump’s base, people will trust his motivations, especially when he’s under serious political pressure. He is up for reelection in November, and he’s facing a potential impeachment trial in the Senate. Tweets he sent out years ago show that he’s well aware a president’s popularity spikes in wartime: In 2011, a year before Obama won reelection, Trump claimed, “In order to get elected, Obama will start a war with Iran.”
Trump’s critics suspect that he’s inflaming tensions with Iran to suit his own needs, deliberate preparation be damned. They see a “wag the dog” scenario—the term for presidents who manufacture overseas crises to divert attention from embarrassments at home.
Read: Qassem Soleimani haunted the Arab world
Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, tweeted, “So what if Trump wants war, knows this leads to war and needs the distraction?” She went on to say, as other Democrats have, that Congress should intervene and stop him from escalating the situation any further. Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan and a former CIA analyst who served in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, said in a statement that the U.S. has long considered what to do about Soleimani-led attacks on its forces. Both administrations concluded that a strike against him wasn’t worth the risk of retaliatory action pulling the U.S. into a “protracted conflict,” Slotkin said.
Americans woke today to a foreign-policy landscape that seemed forever changed, more ominous than at any point in Trump’s presidency. Scenarios for what comes next seemed grim: an Iranian counterattack on a U.S. embassy somewhere in the Middle East? Then possibly a U.S. reprisal, followed by another Iranian assault—a steady ratcheting toward a shooting war? But the country didn’t get much reassurance or a clear-eyed message about what had just happened and what to expect. Among his tweets recounting the praise he’s gotten for killing Soleimani, Trump revealed he’s still stuck on impeachment and his own political survival. He posted a video of Representative Russ Fulcher, a Republican from Idaho, delivering a speech on the House floor in his defense, in which the congressman said he would tick off Trump’s crimes and misdemeanors. Then Fulcher stayed silent.
That sight gag, in between messages of support for the killing, is what the 45th president wanted his countrymen to see as they anxiously watched the news and wondered whether war was looming.