Team Trump haunted by its lack of credibility

In a time of crisis, it may be tempting for many Americans to give their leaders the benefit of the doubt. Trump and Pompeo have made that impossible.
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By Steve Benen

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on CNN this morning, touting Donald Trump's decision to target and kill Qassim Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force. The administration's top diplomat seemed eager to assure the public that yesterday's airstrikes, approved by the president, were life-saving.

"[T]he American people should know that President Trump's decision to remove Qasem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There's no doubt about that. He was actively plotting in the region to take actions, a big action, as he described it, that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.

"We know it was imminent.... The risk of doing nothing was enormous. The intelligence community made that assessment."

Pompeo added, "We have every expectation that people, not only in Iraq but in Iran, will view the American action last night as giving them freedom."

The cabinet secretary didn't literally say the United States will be celebrated as "liberators," but it was hard not to notice the parallels between Trump administration rhetoric this morning and the language Americans heard from the Bush/Cheney administration in advance of the 2003 war in Iraq.

I can't say with any confidence whether Pompeo's claims were more reliable than the Bush/Cheney rhetoric from 17 years ago. It's certainly possible that there was an "imminent" threat. It's possible that the airstrike "saved American lives." It's possible the U.S. intelligence community made a specific assessment about Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, which Donald Trump and his team took seriously.

But Lawfare's Susan Hennessey raised an important point this morning: "This is the moment where the White House will pay the price for demolishing its credibility with endless lies. Who will believe Pompeo this morning?"

In a time of crisis, it may be tempting for many Americans to give their leaders the benefit of the doubt. Trump and Pompeo have made that impossible.

Vox's Matt Yglesias had a good piece along these lines this morning, noting Team Trump's staggering dishonesty about a great many things, including Iran.

Part of Trump lying about everything is that he frequently says things specifically about Iran that are not true.... Trump, from time to time, even lies about his own past statements on Iran, spending one day last September complaining that the media reported he’d said he was willing to meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions when he clearly said in both an interview with Chuck Todd and a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that he was willing to meet without preconditions.

The point is that the probative value of a Trump statement about Iran is, to be generous, roughly zero. And Pompeo is no better.... Pompeo, too, engages in routine misstatements about Iran specifically, including lies about Iranian nuclear research.

This is important both because Pompeo has become the public face of the administration on this issue, and because though Pompeo does not engage in the range of dishonest statements that Trump does, his more focused dishonesty does include the policy topic at hand.

In September, Pompeo was in Saudi Arabia in the wake of an attack on Saudi oil facilities, accusing Iran of being responsible for the violence, though the Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility.

"[B]y the way, that makes the Houthis' claims false, right," the secretary told reporters at the time. "Just so we're tracking back to your original question, that means these people lie. And so whatever you report about them, you say, 'The Houthis said...,' you should say, 'The well-known, frequently lying Houthis have said the following....'

"This is important, because you ought not report them as if these are truth-tellers, as if these are people who aren't completely under the boot of the Iranians," Pompeo added, "and who would not at the direction of the Iranians lay claim to attacks which they did not engage in, which clearly was the case here.

"So there you go. Whenever you say 'Houthis,' you should begin with, 'The well-known, frequently-known-to-lie Houthis.' And then you can write whatever it is they say."

According to the official State Department transcript, reporters laughed at Pompeo's comments. Perhaps it's because they were aware of the irony?

MORE: Today's Maddowblog