In strange speech, Trump appears to back off escalation with Iran

I'm glad Trump didn't make matters worse this morning, but this was nevertheless the latest in a series of missed opportunities.
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By Steve Benen

For those concerned about escalating military tensions with Iran, last night's retaliatory ballistic-missile strike opened the door to a couple of possible routes for the White House. In light of the modest damage, and the absence of apparent casualties, Donald Trump certainly had the option of de-escalating the crisis and backing off a possible war.

On the other hand, the American president explicitly warned Iran not to retaliate in response to last week's U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani. Tehran ignored that warning, and fired ballistic missiles in the direction of American troops, which raised the possibility of Trump responding in kind with a fresh round of hostilities.

It's sometimes difficult to understand Trump's rhetoric, and his stated intentions are often at odds with his administration's actions, but as of two hours ago, the Republican appeared to prefer the former option over the latter.

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that Iran "appears to be standing down" after its missile attack on U.S. targets in Iraq, and he vowed to keep up the pressure on Tehran with "punishing" new economic sanctions.

Trump made the comments in an address to the nation Wednesday from the White House less than a day after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces in retaliation for the killing of a top general.

Flanked by several members of his team, the president specifically said, "Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good things for the world."

Trump added that "no American or Iraqi lives were lost" in the Iranian attacks, which further reinforced the impression that he doesn't plan to escalate matters -- beyond new economic sanctions. (It's worth noting that Trump, as recently as June, announced economic sanctions against Iran that did not exist in reality. Whether these newly announced measures are real remains to be seen.)

Insofar as the speech was closely watched for signals about the next steps, the president's rhetoric seemed to bring a sigh of relief to many observers who feared a U.S. military response to Iran's military response. That said, it was nevertheless discouraging to see and hear Trump deliver a strange speech to an anxious public, repeating a series of demonstrably false claims.

Instead of claiming the high road, acting in a presidential manner, and striving for some semblance of national unity, Trump told Americans this morning, for example, that last night's missiles "were paid for" with funds "made available" by the Obama administration.

That's absurd, and it's part of a bogus claim Trump has been repeating for many months.

He went on to take credit for "destroying 100% of ISIS," which is plainly false, since ISIS hasn't been destroyed. He also boasted, "We are now the number one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world," which is true, though it's a status the United States reached in 2012. [Update: There were, of course, a variety of related factual missteps.]

Just as alarming, Trump seemed eager to step on his own message. While embracing the idea of de-escalation, he added, "The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem, will not be tolerated any longer. It will not be allowed to go forward."

In the next breath, Trump suggested involving NATO in ... something related to the Middle East. It wasn't at all clear what exactly he had in mind.

Look, I don't mean to sound picky. There was a real possibility that Trump could've rattled a saber and made matters vastly worse this morning, and I'm glad he didn't. But this was also the latest in a series of missed opportunities for the president: facing a credibility crisis, he lied. Facing a divided domestic electorate, he took partisan cheap shots at his predecessor. Facing questions about whether he's up to the task of leadership, he struggled with his trusted teleprompter and mispronounced a series of words.

Once again, Trump is the president who just can't seem to help himself.

MORE: Today's Maddowblog