As Trump threatens war with Iran, few know whether to take it seriously

Welcome to Monday morning, Americans. Your president published a series of tweets overnight, directed at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, raising the prospect of a war.

In the nearly all-caps tweet, Trump directly warned the Iranian president to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN,” adding that any new ones would bring “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

Trump’s tweet came hours after Rouhani’s own warning over the weekend, reported by Iranian state news agency IRNA, that Trump was playing “with the lion’s tail.”

“America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” Rouhani said.

Trump called the comments “DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”

Under normal circumstances, when a sitting American president threatens a possible war with a foreign adversary, it would be a development of great international significance. But Donald Trump’s presidency offers little in the way of normal circumstances.

It’s an awkward feeling. On the one hand, the Commander in Chief of the world’s strongest military is publicly raising the prospect of a deadly conflict, and it seems irresponsible to just shrug that off as background noise. On the other hand, most observers realize that Trump is an erratic amateur with the temperament of an elementary-school bully, who finds joy in chest-thumping bluster, and whose occasional tantrums frequently amount to very little.

The former suggests last night’s presidential tweets were important. The latter suggests we should roll our eyes and focus our attention elsewhere.

The uncertainty is itself an issue the nation needs to come to terms with. When a sitting American president threatens a war, and no one’s sure whether to take it seriously, there’s a problem.

Who knows, maybe Trump is actually preparing for a conflict. Or maybe he saw some forgettable segment on Fox News that got him all worked up again, but it won’t last. Or maybe the president hopes to distract everyone from his long list of unrelated problems. (Paul Manafort, who led Trump’s political operation, will be in a federal courtroom this week for the start of his multi-count criminal trial.)

We can say with some certainty that Trump sees Iran threats as a convenient domestic political tool – because he’s already told us so. He tweeted in 2013, “Remember what I previously said – Obama will someday attack Iran in order to show how tough he is.” He added two months later, “Remember that I predicted a long time ago that President Obama will attack Iran because of his inability to negotiate properly - not skilled!”

A year earlier, the Republican television personality wrote, “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.”

It’s surprisingly easy to revisit these missives and replace “Obama” with “Trump.”

Tehran can at least take some comfort in recent history. It wasn’t long ago that this American president was threatening to rain “fire and fury” onto a foreign adversary, only to soon after start showering the adversary with praise and concessions in exchange for nothing.

Today, Rouhani faces “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.” Tomorrow, Trump may tell the world how “honorable” and “talented” Rouhani is, and how much he enjoys the Iranian leader’s “great personality.”

It’s all part of life in Trump’s America.

Donald Trump and Iran

As Trump threatens war with Iran, few know whether to take it seriously