Trump Cultivated His Own Credibility Crisis on Iran

The president can’t assume that Americans will accept what he says as true.

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.

White House Personnel Director Tells Trump Top DHS Secretary Picks Ineligible for Job

The White House personnel office chief has told President Trump that his top two picks to fill the Homeland Security secretary job aren’t eligible under a federal law dictating who can fill the role without Senate confirmation, said people familiar with the matter.

During a meeting Friday at the White House, Sean Doocey, head of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, informed the president that neither Ken Cuccinelli nor Mark Morgan, who head two prominent immigration agencies at the Department of Homeland Security, were legally eligible to lead the agency on an acting basis.

Mr. Trump and many of his top immigration advisers favored Messrs. Cuccinelli and Morgan, who have worked at DHS for only the past few months but who are ardent defenders of the president’s immigration policies on television. The previous acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, recently submitted his resignation but will remain on the job through the end of the month.

The two men were installed in the spring after the White House pushed out several officials, including former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whom they felt were standing in the way of tougher immigration enforcement.

Mr. Cuccinelli heads the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency overseeing legal immigration and asylum applications. Mr. Morgan leads Customs and Border Protection. Each is serving on an acting basis, and neither has been nominated by Mr. Trump for permanent roles, which would require Senate confirmation.

Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is serving on an acting basis, and hasn’t been nominated by President Trump for a permanent role.PHOTO: ZACH GIBSON/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Although popular with conservative immigration activists, Mr. Cuccinelli in particular isn’t a likely candidate to lead the department permanently. He made powerful enemies in the Senate, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), when he ran the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group that challenged incumbent Republicans. Mr. McConnell has said his nomination would inspire a “lack of enthusiasm.”

The federal statute that governs vacancies states that acting officials in cabinet-level positions must either be next in line for a position or hold a Senate-confirmed post. Under a third option, the official being elevated must have served for at least 90 days in the past year under the previous secretary.

During the meeting Friday, Mr. Doocey briefed Mr. Trump on an opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that the past secretary was Ms. Nielsen, not Mr. McAleenan, the people familiar with the matter said. Under that interpretation, Messrs. Cuccinelli and Morgan wouldn’t qualify, as they joined the agency after Ms. Nielsen departed.

The meeting with Mr. Trump on Friday included Stephen Miller, a top adviser to the president, and Emma Doyle, deputy chief of staff, the people said.

An administration official said Mr. Trump hoped to announce the next acting DHS secretary in the next few days. Another White House official said the administration doesn’t intend for that person to serve for as long as Mr. McAleenan did.

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The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

White House officials are instead considering Chad Wolf, Ms. Nielsen’s former chief of staff, as acting secretary, administration officials said, a move backed by Mr. Miller. In February, Mr. Wolf was nominated to serve as the department’s undersecretary for policy.

The White House is also considering David Pekoske, the Transportation Security Administration head who is serving as acting deputy DHS secretary, and Chris Krebs, head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, according to administration officials. Mr. Pekoske has already indicated to DHS colleagues that he doesn’t want the top job, though, and would prefer to return to the TSA full-time, according to a person familiar with the matter.

As Mr. Wolf’s possible appointment began to circulate on Monday, it drew public criticism from outside groups pushing a more restrictive immigration policy.

RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, pointed to Mr. Wolf’s past work for the National Association of Software and Services Companies, which lobbies for the U.S. government to issue more green cards to foreign workers each year. Advocates also said Mr. Wolf’s close relationship with Ms. Nielsen meant he likely wouldn’t steer the department in a more hard-line direction.

A senior DHS official said the criticism of Mr. Wolf is unfounded, as he supported many of the administration’s recent immigration policy goals, including implementing asylum agreements with three Latin American countries.

“If he was selected as acting, he would easily be able to pick up the ball on day one and carry on with the president’s priorities,” the official said.

The legal ineligibility of Messrs. Morgan and Cuccinelli for the acting DHS post isn’t likely to have a big impact on Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda. The two men will continue at their respective agencies, where they have been given wide latitude to set policy and shape the administration’s immigration messaging—sometimes to the chagrin of Mr. McAleenan, the department’s top official.

A White House official said that if the next secretary formally nominated to lead the department doesn’t have a strong immigration background, the president may revive an idea to appoint a “border czar” to oversee the Department’s immigration policy and enforcement. That position wouldn’t require Senate confirmation.

Why Firing Mick Mulvaney Is Riskier Than Keeping Him

President Trump’s third chief of staff seemed destined for the door until impeachment came along.

Mick Mulvaney’s job was in danger even before his disastrous press conference yesterday, and his equally disastrous attempt to walk that performance back. The fumble could not have been more poorly timed: According to multiple current and former White House officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations, Trump has been steadily souring on Mulvaney for weeks.

In his maiden briefing-room appearance yesterday, the acting White House chief of staff acknowledged that the Trump administration had held up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a politically motivated investigation—a quid pro quo that Trump has repeatedly insisted never took place, and is the subject of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

The president has polled confidants about whether Mulvaney is up to the job, blaming him for leaks and negative news coverage, and considering whether he should find someone else to run the West Wing. It might stand to reason, then, that with Trump’s growing frustrations with Mulvaney—coupled with a performance yesterday that could put Trump in greater legal jeopardy than ever before—Mulvaney’s days as acting chief of staff are numbered.

Yesterday’s press conference was significant not just for Mulvaney’s revelations about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. It also laid bare just how key a role Mulvaney has played in those dealings. Mulvaney admitted, for example, that Trump had spoken to him directly about an issue at the heart of Congress’s impeachment inquiry: withholding aid to Ukraine partly because Trump wanted an investigation into a conspiracy theory involving a Democratic National Committee server.

Trump was not happy—and neither were his most prominent allies. The shock of Mulvaney’s admission was only compounded by the flippancy with which he delivered it: For those troubled by it, he told reporters, “get over it.” Mulvaney later walked the claim back, but even in the eyes of the president’s closest confidants, the damage was done. For a White House staffer, there is perhaps no worse place to be than in Sean Hannity’s crosshairs, and that’s where Mulvaney found himself yesterday, after undercutting the administration’s talking points on impeachment in a way that not even a Trump-loving Fox News host could spin. Shortly after the press conference, Hannity excoriated the acting chief on his radio show: “What is Mulvaney even talking about?” Hannity scoffed. “I just think he’s dumb, I really do. I don’t even think he knows what he’s talking about. That’s my take on it.”

Nevertheless, in the course of combusting the White House’s narrative on impeachment, Mulvaney unwittingly demonstrated why, at this fraught moment in Trump’s presidency, he may be untouchable: Should Trump fire him and leave him aggrieved, Mulvaney could prove a damaging witness in Congress’s impeachment investigation.

A former White House official said Trump “will be feeling the pain of having pushed out [former National Security Adviser John] Bolton at a very inopportune time. He won’t make the same mistake with Mulvaney, however frustrated he may be with him. Now, their interests are aligned. They sink or swim together.”

It’s a line of thinking that has come to permeate the West Wing, and it marks a significant shift in how Trump is beginning to view his relationship with his staffers. For the past two and a half years, the White House has operated like a radio perpetually set on scan, with Trump sampling staffer after staffer in search of those whose rhythms match his own. Indeed, as Mulvaney told us earlier this year, it’s made for a West Wing whose atmosphere is dictated by one particular maxim: “He could fire any of us tomorrow.”

With the backdrop of impeachment, however, some White House staffers could feel more secure in their jobs than even their boss—and that’s perhaps especially true of Mulvaney. As Democrats move forward in their investigation, they’re looking for star witnesses, those officials in Trump’s inner circle who could speak authoritatively as to whether Trump pressured a foreign power to open investigations into both the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden. And should Trump discard an adviser in his preferred manner—hastily announce the news on Twitter, then trash the person’s reputation—he or she may decide to become said star witness.

When Trump fired Bolton last month, he sent out a frosty tweet saying Bolton’s “services are no longer needed” and later mocked him for supporting the Iraq War. Since then, Bolton has made clear he has no desire to stay quiet, suggesting in a recent speech at a think tank in Washington, D.C., that Trump’s effort to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program is failing. Now Bolton is even better positioned to retaliate, and House Democrats may subpoena him to testify as part of their impeachment probe.

Bolton’s uncertain loyalty in this pivotal moment has convinced many of Trump’s allies that, eager as the president may be to oust him, Mulvaney is better kept inside of the White House. According to the current and former White House officials and others close to the president, people have been urging Trump to hold his acting chief in place, telling him that the risk of an aggrieved ex-official on the outside far outweighs any annoyances Trump may have with him. As President Lyndon Johnson famously said about then–FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, it’s better to keep him inside the tent “pissing out” than the opposite.

“The president always fears that people he either gets rid of or resigns will turn out to be a press liability,” one person close to the White House told us. “But, look, if you treat people like crap, you shouldn’t expect loyalty.”

According to legal experts, by keeping Mulvaney in place, Trump can make a stronger case that Mulvaney is immune from having to testify about conversations with the president. “It becomes more difficult to control those who are no longer part of the executive branch,” Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, told us.

This is not to say, of course, that Trumpworld was quick to move on from Mulvaney’s disastrous briefing-room appearance. One of the president’s personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow, released a terse statement after Mulvaney’s press conference, saying that Trump’s legal team “was not involved” in the briefing.

However, the fact that Mulvaney still holds his job—in spite of the torrent of criticism inside and outside the White House—could underscore just how much impeachment has come to scramble the regular rhythms of this presidency. Gone, perhaps, are the days when Trump would give little thought to axing a senior official. Because while tell-all books come and go—promising a juicy anecdote here, a gossipy passage there—the impeachment inquiry is in motion. Which means the risk of ushering his staff into the arms of Democratic investigators is one that Trump may become less and less inclined to take.

There was a curious moment on Wednesday in the Oval Office, when Trump’s opinion of Bolton suddenly seemed to brighten. No longer did Trump want to dwell on his disagreements with Bolton or how Bolton had wrongly supported the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. “I actually got along with him pretty well. It just didn’t work out,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, Sergio Mattarella.

It was as though Trump was telegraphing an understanding of the stakes, in this moment, of having his former national security adviser as an enemy. And earlier today, when he brushed off reporters’ questions about Mulvaney’s press conference, saying simply, “I think he clarified it,” Trump seemed to communicate another message of self-awareness: that he, more than ever, needs Mulvaney as a friend.

Stockman: Trump Is a ‘Hopeless, Mercantilist Protectionist’

welcome back to cheddar business
everyone on Monday saw the Dow suffer
its worst one-day drop since January 3rd
while the SP and the Nasdaq hadn’t seen
a day like it since early December
joining us now is David Stockman he’s
the former director of the Office of
Management and Budget under President
Ronald Reagan he’s also the author of
peak Trump the under a noble swamp and
the fantasy of manga David it’s great to
have you on chatter happy to be here
look a huge sell-off yesterday right
what do you make of the escalation of
the trade war between the US and China
well I think yesterday was a wake-up
call I don’t think this trade war is
going to end anytime soon
you got two fundamentally incompatible
economies you have a policy being driven
by you know a guy who’s you know lost
his lunch I think Trump has no clue what
he’s doing he’s sliding by the seat of
his pants he’s a hopeless protectionist
he doesn’t really know what he wants and
he has no clue how this is going to
unfold so I think we have big trouble
ahead
so why do Republicans the party of
Reagan right why do they seem to be
going along with Trump I think they’re
going along with Trump because the GDP
was had a three in it last quarter and
because we’re at the end of a business
cycle where the whole economy looks good
my point in peak Trump is the peak is
behind us the market peaked last
September at 29 41 we’re now triple peak
I don’t think we’re going back the
economy’s in month 118 of the longest
weakest expansion in history we got
headwinds everywhere we got a federal
debt that’s out of control we have a Fed
that waited way too long to tighten and
now doesn’t know what to do
we have Europe which i think is rolling
over into another recession we have what
I call the red ponzi and China’s
struggling with 40 trillion of debt none
of these things suggest there’s smooth
sailing ahead I think they all suggest
that there’s a huge risk that some kind
of Black Swan or orange Swan is the case
maybe is likely to upset the whole apple
cart you have to assume that recessions
haven’t been outlawed
and what’s going to happen when we get a
recession and the markets way up in the
stratosphere and the federal budget is
already running 1.2 trillion of red ink
and then revenue falls and expenditures
soar we’re gonna have the biggest mess
you can ever imagine so given all these
headwinds that you listed out you said
recessions haven’t been outlawed do you
think this is do you think Trump is
aware of these factors do you think he
feels the pressure to get a trade deal
done with China do you think he’s
capable of getting a deal done that will
be beneficial for US markets no I think
he’s delusional he thinks he has far
more power that he’s far more skilled at
the art of the deal in negotiation that
than he really is and so I don’t think
any deal is going to get done at all and
I think he believes the economy is far
stronger than it actually is because
we’ve had some aberration in the numbers
which aren’t sustainable in other words
we’ve had some inventory build-up and
we’ve had all this turmoil and trade
that pulled imports forward if you
strain that out the economy is growing
at less than 2% a year it’s not a boom
if you actually look at Trump’s first 28
report cards on jobs 200 2,000 per month
Obama‘s last 28 report cards before the
election
220,000 per month there’s been no
acceleration there’s no boom what we
have is an aging business cycle this
company to the end of the road and we’ve
done nothing to get prepared for the
trouble that’s ahead what is the Fed
going to do the interest rate is only
two point four percent and Trump is
complaining its balance sheet is still
almost four trillion what is the fiscal
policy going to do when we’re already
locked in to a borrowing rate at the end
the tippy-top of a business cycle of 1.2
trillion a year we’ve never been in
these circumstances before and so
therefore I think we have to get over
this recency bias which says well last
couple quarters look pretty good so
what’s to worry there’s everything to
worry because the last 30 years have
been taking us to a point of
much speculation in so much debt now
remember we had the financial crisis
people don’t even remember that anymore
but we did have it in 208 and they said
it was a wake-up call we got too much
debt we need to deleverage right well
there was 53 trillion of debt on the US
economy then this is mid 208 public
private business households government
today it’s 72 trillion all right we went
from 53 trillion which was too high to
73 trillion we’ve added 20 trillion debt
that did give us the kind of you know
appearance of a recovery in prosperity
but really we only doubled down and now
we’re gonna face the music in a far
weaker position with a madman in the
Oval Office who’s home alone and what I
mean by that is who are his advisers
nowadays okay I mean Steve minuchin is
an 80-pound political weakling who gives
yes-men a bad name okay Larry Kudlow has
been snorting bullish ethers down on
Wall Street for so long that he’s not
even in the economist Peter Navarro
would rather have a real war with China
rather than a trade war and you know
Wilbur Ross may have a heartbeat or not
I don’t know but he’s he’s as bad in
terms of trade policy as Trump so it’s
all being run by Bob light Howser who I
know from way back when I was on Capitol
Hill and in the Reagan White House in
the early 80s he’s a lifelong swamp
creature who wants to make government
bigger and better and more intrusive and
that’s the kind of trade deal he wants
it’s really for a big business it’s not
for jobs in the economy what do you
think Reagan would think of President
Trump he would be horrified he would be
horrified because Ronald Reagan was a
small government guy he was a free trade
guy he was a free-market guy he believed
in fiscal
you know rectitude and he was not for
hectoring the Fed for easy money when
Volker put on the brakes and interest
rates went into you know double digits
Ronald Reagan said we have to do it we
got to bite the bullet we got to get rid
of this inflation and let the Fed
restore sound money
so everything that Reagan stood for
Trump is really against okay
he is a hopeless mercantilist
protectionist he is the worst big
spender we’ve ever had in the Oval
Office on the Republican side and you
know he’s he’s a bombastic yes I guess I
go back to my earlier question I just
have a trouble understanding why
Republicans are buying into this and why
Republicans Senators and Representatives
don’t stand up for the party and stand
up for the legacy of the Republican
Party against Trump I could give you an
anecdote from my own history in January
1973 I was a young guy on Capitol Hill
Nixon was riding high he had won the
election 44 million – twenty-eight
million wasn’t a squeaker squeaker like
Trump but swept the whole electoral
college he told his whole cabinet you
got to resign I’m so strong I don’t need
you and within 18 months they had him on
the helicopter and sending him out of
town because the economy went down in
the interim in other words as long as
the economy was showing decent numbers
the Republicans kept quiet and when the
economy and the stock market went down
38 percent they were gone we only have
10 seconds for this answer but is there
a challenger to trump you’re behind
right now probably not okay well come
back when there is okay a former
director of the Office of Management and
Budget under President Ronald Reagan
he’s also the author of peak Trump he
under a noble swamp and the fantasy of
Nagas thank you so much for joining us