Every other relevant detail, including each of the claims the president has made to the public, should be taken with a grain of salt.
According to the version of events Trump published to Twitter, the military was “cocked and loaded” to hit three Iranian targets when he asked U.S. generals about the expected casualties. After being told to expect 150 fatalities, the Republican – again, according to him – aborted the mission “10 minutes before the strike.”
The story he shared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” with Chuck Todd was a little different.
TRUMP: Nothing is green lighted until the very end because things change, right?
TODD: So you never gave a final order?
TRUMP: No, no, no, no. But we had something ready to go, subject to my approval. And they came in. And they came in about a half an hour before, they said, “So we’re about ready to go.” I said, “I want a better definition –”
TODD: Planes in the air? Were planes in the air?
TRUMP: No, no. “We’re about ready to go.” No, but they would have been pretty soon. And things would have happened to a point where you wouldn’t turn back or couldn’t turn back. So they came and they said, “Sir, we’re ready to go. We’d like a decision.” I said, “I want to know something before you go. How many people will be killed, in this case Iranians?” I said, “How many people are going to be killed?” “Sir, I’d like get back to you on that,” great people these generals. They said, came back, said, “Sir, approximately 150.” And I thought about it for a second and I said, “You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it. And here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead.” And I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was, I didn’t think it was proportionate.
Given the seriousness of the subject – at issue is a life-or-death decision that risked a potentially devastating new war in the Middle East – it matters that the American president’s story is literally unbelievable.
A half-hour before the planes took off, Trump asked U.S. military leaders about the expected casualties, and they didn’t know? That’s almost certainly wrong. For that matter, the Pentagon recommended a mission that would’ve killed 150 people as the appropriate response to the downing of a drone? That’s very hard to believe, too.
What’s more, the Washington Post reported that the president had been briefed with a casualty assessment much earlier in the day, not 30 minutes before the mission was launched.
The New York Times, meanwhile, reported that the figure came, not from a general, but from Pentagon lawyers who’d drafted a worst-case scenario. The same report said Trump was advised on how best to proceed by Tucker Carlson – the far-right Fox News host.
The point is not to highlight the latest in a staggering series of presidential deceptions. Rather, there are a few reasons stories like these are important.
First, by the president’s own telling, the White House’s decision-making process on critical national security matters is a ridiculous mess.
Second, either Trump took a fictional tale to the public about the launch of a possible war, or he was badly confused about the launch of a possible war. Either scenario is unsettling.
And finally, the larger problem with Trump’s flamboyant dishonesty has always been the lasting harm to his credibility as a world leader. We need to be able to count on a president in a time of crisis to be responsible, grounded, and honest. This latest incident suggests this president lacks each of these qualities.