Updated on Friday, January 3, 2019, at 3:37 p.m. ET.
More so than any other president in the modern era, Donald Trump has made his administration a one-man spectacle. He hires and fires officials on impulse, demonstrating at every turn that the people under him are disposable and he’s the only figure who counts. Should the conflict with Iran escalate into a hot war, Trump will be the one who needs to sell Americans on the idea that it is necessary and prepare them for the sacrifice and bloodshed the nation must endure.
Yet by virtue of his own repeated misstatements and distortions, Trump arrives at this perilous moment at a decided disadvantage: He can’t assume people will accept what he says as true, because millions have concluded it never is.
Trump faces the gravest foreign-policy crisis of his tenure at a time when his credibility has been shredded. It’s not yet known how Iran will respond to the killing yesterday of its military leader Qassem Soleimani, but the country is already vowing “harsh” revenge. A conflict that has been escalating steadily on Trump’s watch is at risk of erupting into an armed confrontation. In times of war, commanders in chief need people’s trust, but for large swaths of the population, Trump hasn’t earned it. As Samantha Power, who was the ambassador to the United Nations under former President Barack Obama, tweeted this morning: “This is where having credibility—and having a president who didn’t lie about everything—would be really, really helpful.”
Independent fact-checkers have painstakingly documented Trump’s untruths. The Washington Post keeps a running tally and reports that Trump’s false and misleading claims are coming with growing frequency, now topping 15,000 since the start of his presidency. While Americans celebrated the holidays, their president used his Twitter account to share misstatements both petty and serious. In an act of spite, he suggested, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had cut his seven-second cameo from a Canadian broadcast of the movie Home Alone 2. Trump tweeted that he was the one who passed a program giving veterans the option of seeing a private doctor. And he said the Obama administration had made him the target of a “coup.” Each of those claims is false.
Now Trump is using that same Twitter feed, launchpad of so many baseless attacks and conspiracy theories, to convince his countrymen that he was right to target Soleimani in a drone strike and that he acted preemptively to deter Iranian aggression.
Compounding his credibility problem is a desiccated national-security team. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, might be leaving soon to campaign for a Senate seat in Kansas. His longtime defense secretary, James Mattis, resigned last year and was replaced only this summer. His national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, has been in place just a few months—the fourth person to hold the title in three years.
Trump has demeaned and discarded multiple officials and cast doubt on their intelligence findings. During the House impeachment proceedings, Trump sought to discredit longtime foreign-policy experts working for his administration who testified that he had attempted to pressure Ukraine into digging up dirt on his political rival Joe Biden. Though he’s now touting intelligence that Iran was poised to launch more attacks on U.S. interests, the president might have undermined his own case by repeatedly questioning the intelligence community’s competence. In a memorable press conference during his 2018 summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump accepted his claim that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 elections, repudiating what his own agencies had unanimously found.
Trump’s first public response to the strike suggests that he will try to summon patriotic feeling to rally Americans to his side. After the news broke, he tweeted a picture of an American flag. This afternoon, he gave a brief televised statement at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida. His tone was in some ways conciliatory: He said he does not want “regime change” in Iran. But he also warned Iranian leaders that he is prepared to retaliate against future aggression. “We took action last night to stop a war,” he said. “We did not take action to start a war.” Trump left the room without taking questions from reporters.
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.
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.