Two days later, facing opposition that stretched from the Pentagon to his own party’s leadership on Capitol Hill, Trump folded. “I like to obey the law,” he told reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday. Kelly Magsamen, a national-security official in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, told me that Trump’s interest in targeting Iranian cultural sites did not come from the Department of Defense. “Where is that coming from? Is that coming from a political adviser? From the latest person he spoke to at Mar-a-Lago?” she asked rhetorically. “I worked at the Pentagon. Any U.S. soldier—all the way down to a private, all the way up to four-star general—would know that’s violation of international law. And it’s un-American.”
I’ve spent the past several days trying to learn where the idea originated. One Trump-administration official told me that the news media were the ones who used the term cultural sites, not the president. I reminded this person that Trump had specifically used the term twice in two days. “Did he?” came the response.
I asked White House officials about another idea floated to me: whether Trump’s intention was more specific, to target political monuments; they did not confirm that it aligned with Trump’s intention.
Read: Trump’s chance to take the high road with Iran
I posed the cultural-sites question to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump confidant who was briefed in advance on the Soleimani drone strike during a golf trip with the president at Mar-a-Lago over the holidays. Graham told me that he didn’t know where Trump got the idea.“I understand it’s an emotional time and he wants to create maximum deterrence. In my view, this doesn’t create deterrence. The goal is to divide the Iranian people from the regime. They’re already divided. I wouldn’t want to do anything to unite them.”
A former White House official, who, after insisting that no one in the national-security establishment could possibly have advised the president to demolish, say, the ruins of Persepolis, told me: “I know the man well enough to know that’s something he dreamed up all by himself.”
If Barack Obama did x, Trump will do y
Listening to the president’s 10-minute address at the White House yesterday, a non-Iranian foe seemed to be on his mind: Barack Obama.
Since inauguration weekend 2017, a guiding principle of Trump’s White House has been, simply: If Obama did it, undo it. Trump devoted part of his speech yesterday to denouncing one of the signature foreign-policy moves of the Obama administration: a deal with Iran aimed at curbing the regime’s nuclear-weapons program. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018, even though his own administration had deemed Iran to have complied with its terms.
In his remarks, Trump called the agreement “foolish” and “very defective,” and then gave a distorted account of its terms. He said, for example, that the Obama administration had “given” Iran $150 billion as part of the deal. In fact, the money came from Iran regaining its own assets, which had been frozen. Trump also claimed that the missiles fired by Iran were financed “with the funds made available by the last administration.” That baseless assertion implies that if Americans are killed by Iranian attacks, Obama has blood on his hands.
Having undermined Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, Trump has yet to put forward a concrete plan to replace it. He opened his speech by declaring that Iran would never get a nuclear weapon on his watch. But negating Obama’s work isn’t a strategy to bring that about; it’s a tactic to tarnish his legacy.