As the dust continues to settle after the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, US President Donald Trump and his advisors have struggled with justifying the need for the provocative strike, which drove the US and Iran to the brink of war. Observers have also questioned the strategy behind the decision to assassinate a foreign commander and whether it was based on the pending impeachment trial in the US Senate.

New accounts on the circumstances that ultimately resulted in the go-ahead drone strike have since trickled out of Washington. A Wall Street Journal report   

“Mr Trump, after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate,” the Jan. 9, The WSJ reported.

If true, the implications are astounding, but The WSJ only makes mention of the revelation in the aforementioned paragraph. More broadly, however, the alleged disclosure to business associates – not public officials – could give a clearer insight into the strategy behind Trump’s decision. 

Immediately following the strike, news pundits filled the airwaves, speculating on the reasoning behind the attack. Could intelligence have pointed to a possible Iranian attack on the US? Certainly, but if that were true, there would be some evidence of it. Additionally, it would lead into the question of how assassinating Suleimani would prevent said attack rather than inspire Iranians to go forward with it. Iran has the largest proxy network of any state, with its influence spread across the Middle East, Africa, and even Latin America. In believing one man’s life could put a stop to any terrorism plans, there must have been surefire intelligence to make the case. 

“Insulting and Demeaning”

If that evidence exists, the Trump administration failed at showing it during Congressional briefings in the House and Senate. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper appeared before congresspeople to make their case, but ended the day leaving representatives and senators even more enraged. The briefings incited not only Democrats, but also Republicans and resulted in the immediate passage of a non-binding war powers resolution, effectively chastising the president. 

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., called the Senate briefings “insulting and demeaning” to the legislature and Constitution.

“It was probably the worst briefing I’ve seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate,” Lee said.

Outspoken Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., joined him in supporting the war powers resolution and condemning the killing. The trio representing the president provided no solid details such as time or place of attack and stayed for only 75 minutes. According to a senior Democratic congress member, the briefing was more of a history lesson and general overview of Iranian terrorism through the decades. 

If Suleimani’s killing was not provoked by a credible threat to America, then why risk putting the US at war? The popular “wag the dog” theory holds that a wartime president can leverage conflict to rally voters during an election. This strategy generally works and it would make sense for Trump to try it. 

Just Enough to Campaign On

Perhaps he does not need all-out war, however, in order to inspire voters. A Politico report from Nancy Cook documented Trump’s new line of messaging against Democrats as the election approaches. Mere days after the situation was deescalated by both sides, Trump and his advisors went on the air to cast Democrats as Iran sympathizers and unpatriotic. 

“I don’t hear too many people other than politicians who are trying to win the presidency. Those are the ones that are complaining, but I don’t hear anybody else complaining,” Trump said.

Both Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the United Nations and Republican governor of South Carolina, and Kellyanne Conway, White House counselor, criticized Democrats. 

“The president took out the world’s most threatening terrorist and the Democrats are trying to take out the president. He wins!” said Conway. “The alarmists and apologists show skepticism about our own intelligence and sympathy for Soleimani.”

Haley went a step further and claimed Democrats are “mourning the loss of Suleimani.” 

To be clear, no Democrat has expressed dismay over the killing or doubted Suleimani’s role in Iran’s terrorism network. Instead, they have questioned the rationale and timing behind the killing. During the 2004 election, former President George W. Bush rallied his base 1 year after deploying troops to Iraq. A popular argument used against Democrats who opposed the war was that they were unpatriotic and disloyal. Weapons of mass destruction still have not been found, despite Bush’s insistence their presence necessitated a US intervention.

When the US went to war against the Taliban, American nationalism was even turned against the French as Republicans began calling French fries “Freedom fries” when France hesitated to become embroiled in the conflict. 

Trump’s killing of Suleimani presented him with both a new line of messaging and an accomplishment, neither of which he had before. He has failed to live up to his 2016 campaign promises, such as cancelling The Affordable Care Act and removing troops from the Middle East. Now he can advertise himself as the man who killed a terrorist leader and label anyone who does not agree with the decision unpatriotic. 

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