WASHINGTON – President Trump has slammed most of his best national security advisors abandoning retaliatory attacks in Iran on Thursday. In private conversations on Friday, Mr. Trump enjoyed his judgment, certain of his decision to cancel the attacks as he talked about his administration as if it had been removed from the center of it.
"These people want to push us into a war, and it's so disgusting," Trump told a confidant about his inner circle of advisers. "We don't need any more wars".
In these conversations, Trump complained about the costs of a drone shot down by Iran – about 130 million dollars before research and development – but told people that the dollar figure would resonate less with US voters than potential victims. The president said that the estimates given to him showed that 150 people could have been killed. He pointed out to the confidants that each of those Iranians had families, which would mean that hundreds more would be affected.
"I don't want to kill 150 Iranians," he told reporters on Saturday, adding that he has Iranian friends at home in New York. "I don't want to kill 150 of anything or anyone, unless it's absolutely necessary."
On Saturday, Mr. Trump supported a new line of action: another round of sanctions in Tehran will be formally announced on Monday, although it has offered no further details. The current sanctions package of the administration against Iran has pushed the country's economy into a multi-year contraction and increased tensions in the region. But the measures have yet to persuade Tehran to open negotiations with Trump, who is seeking an agreement to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.
While many of Mr. Trump's best advisers supported a more aggressive set of strike options, Marine General Joe Dunford, president of the Chiefs of Staff, got a more cautious note, which had an exceptional influence on the president.
The same Mr. Trump on Saturday publicly described the conflict within his own team which has remained a sore point for some involved. He praised General Dunford for advising caution, while highlighting his past disagreements with his falcon national security adviser John Bolton, who was the driving force behind the proposed attacks.
Trump described General Dunford, who according to officials developed a personal relationship with the president, as "a fantastic man and a terrifying general". He raised Bolton's support for the war in Iraq during the administration of President George W. Bush, saying it was a big mistake
"John Bolton is doing a good job, but he generally takes a tough attitude," Trump told reporters at the White House. "The only one that matters is me."
The president is known for researching a range of opinions, and has again done so amid growing tensions with Iran, even going as far as Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson, according to people familiar with those conversations. Mr. Carlson opposed military intervention in Iran on his prime-time television program.
Mr. Trump said he wants a certain amount of division within his team while making a decision, and suggested he be proud of how this was reflected on him.
"Everyone said I was a warmonger and now they are saying that I am a dove," Trump told reporters at the White House. "And I'm neither of them, if you want to know the truth. I'm a man with common sense."
But the members of Mr. Trump's team were not so happy with the president on the internal schism, which seemed to put a strain on the fragile alliance within this group in another transition period, according to officials of the administration . It is not clear whether the division within the team – which includes the third national security adviser to Mr. Trump, the second secretary of state and the third official in charge of the Department of Defense – can heal or continue to deteriorate.
To illustrate the dispute behind the scenes on Saturday, an administration official said the Pentagon foiled the plans agreed in Iran using the backchannels to provide Trump with inaccurate estimates of the victims. This official said a Pentagon lawyer sent the estimate to the White House Council Office, which he handed over to the president.
But another official of the administration rejected the accusations as sour grapes. One official said that the number of 150 victims was generated in the White House, not the Pentagon, which routinely uses a "collateral damage assessment" of its own with any significant military operation. But the range of military options did not include such a high number, two officials said.
The White House and Pentagon spokesmen declined to comment.
"As the president's senior military adviser, General Dunford provided his military advice on Iran," said Colonel Pat Ryder, spokesman for General Dunford. "However, I have nothing to offer regarding President Trump's comments. For political reasons, we are not discussing resolutions."
Mr. Trump, for his part, acknowledged that the estimate came from lawyers, but was eventually handed over to him by a general. Asked if he was General Dunford, the main Pentagon military officer, President Trump refused to say directly, answering: "I had a long talk with Dunford. He is a great gentleman."
The attack on a US drone was only the latest in a series of provocative actions by Tehran and induced a national security meeting Thursday morning – a breakfast at the White House – at Mr. Bolton's request.
Breakfast is a weekly meeting for Mr. Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. On Thursday, he also included General Dunford, who according to officials emerged as an influential voice within the Pentagon, and Mark Esper, who Mr. Trump said would appoint to replace Mr. Shanahan at the top of the Department of Defense.
An answer to Iran dominated the discussion and, according to many officials, a unanimous agreement was reached to recommend a military action. This recommendation included strikes against some Iranian targets, according to a person who is familiar with the planning.
But General Dunford, who canceled a trip to Afghanistan scheduled for Saturday with the intensification of tensions with Iran, rarely provides such specific advice, and did not have breakfast on Thursday, according to many officials who they are familiar with planning. General Dunford generally offers a straight analysis of each option, clarifying the costs without weighing an option on the other, these people said.
Military officials have long claimed not to seek a conflict with Iran. They were worried about accidents and to ensure that any strike options were proportional, but they were also worried about an Iranian response. The US military presence in the region has been reduced over the years and no one wanted to run into a conflict with the armed forces operating with reduced capacities, officials said.
Pompey supported the strikes during breakfast, but also included the reluctance that others perceived to come from the Department of Defense, the administration and White House officials. Vice President Mike Pence supported the strikes at a national security meeting later that morning, so he supported the president's decision to stop them, according to these officials.
At that national security meeting, the recommended option was presented to the president, officials said. The victims were discussed and the president accepted the plan, an official said. "The president acknowledged that there may be victims. A fixed point," the official said.
On Saturday, Mr. Trump said his team had brought him "a great plan", but added that the estimate of losses was inaccurate. He clarified that no final approval will be given later.
"They gave me very strange numbers," Trump said of his national security team. "I wanted a precise count."
That estimate came later on Thursday: 150 potential victims, or about 40 to 50 at each strike, Mr. Trump explained Saturday.
But an official of the administration contested this estimate, stating that it was a worse scenario for a mid-day strike. The strikes were planned for half the night, when there were some victims everywhere, the official said.
This may have been too much for Mr. Trump. "Something is a lot when you shoot down an unmanned drone," the president said Saturday, when asked about accident estimates.
-Vivian Salama contributed to this article.
Corrections and amplifications
President Trump said he will appoint Mark Esper as director of the Department of Defense. An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to him as Mike Esper (6/22/2019)
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