WASHINGTON, DC – Donald Trump once warned Barack Obama not to “play the Iran card” to boost his political prospects by starting a war. Eight years later, Trump is showing no reluctance to capitalize politically on his order to kill a top Iranian general, drawing accusations that he is weaponizing foreign policy for his campaign's own gain.
Trump's campaign has used the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, as a cudgel against the president's Democratic political rivals and to divert attention from his impending impeachment trial in the Senate.
“Americans want to see their President acting decisively and defending the nation’s interests and that’s exactly what President Trump did," Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
“Republicans are good at killing terrorists and this is a reminder of that,” added Michael Ahrens, communications director of the Republican National Committee.
The president was expected to amplify those messages on Thursday in Toledo, Ohio, during his first campaign rally since the drone strike last week. Trump’s campaign purchased ads on Facebook highlighting the Soleimani killing.
The Pentagon said Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region." But the Trump administration has refused to provide any specific information about the nature or timing of the alleged plots, leaving Trump open to suspicions that the attack was driven, at least in part, by a belief that it might help him in the polls.
Those around the president strongly dismiss any suggestion of political motive. But they have been happy to use the killing to contrast Trump with his Democratic rivals, painting him as a strong leader and accusing Democrats of appeasing Iran with a failed foreign policy approach.
Despite the short shelf life of most Trump news stories, Trump aides recognized immediately that the strike — approved by the president at his private club in Florida during his winter break — could play an outsize role in the upcoming campaign, particularly if Iran retaliated and the region descended into chaos.
That scenario began to play out Tuesday night when Iran fired a series of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops and warned the United States and its allies in the region not to respond in kind.
The president himself told one confidant that he wanted to deliver a warning to Iran not to mess with American assets. And he was eager to project an image of strength and replicate the message he delivered late last year after approving the raid that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: The U.S. will hunt down its enemies anywhere in the world.
The al-Baghdadi killing has become a staple in Trump’s campaign ads and at his rallies, and Soleimani’s death was expected to receive similar treatment.
“ANOTHER dead terrorist," declared the subject line of a Sunday campaign email blast, which described Soleimani as a “monster responsible for THOUSANDS of American deaths."
The president campaigned on the dual promises of getting tough on Iranian aggression and withdrawing U.S. troops from overseas entanglements — priorities seemingly at odds with one another in the wake of the strike. Trump has increased the number of troops in the region since he took office, despite his promise to end the “endless wars" in the Middle East.
Trump’s foreign policy, dating back to his first campaign, has always had its internal inconsistencies: As much as Trump pushed the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he promised nightly to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” and has been eager to strike a posture of American military strength.
But Trump aides expressed confidence that the president's supporters would not punish him for prioritizing one over the other, at least in the short term. Instead, they argued that targeting what they called terrorist leaders had little to do with prospects for a protracted ground war. And they argued that the killing could be used to create their own version of Obama's unofficial 2012 slogan, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
At the same time, Trump's campaign and White House have tried to use Democratic criticism of the president's killing of Soleimani to paint party members as radical and out of touch.
Two of Trump's rivals, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called Soleimani’s killing an assassination — a label that implies a political rather than national security motive.
Trump's advisers, meanwhile, are out to make the case that the president continues to tend to the nation’s business — in this case, the elimination of a dangerous adversary — while Democrats obsess over impeachment. Aides also believe the raid can be used to highlight possible foreign policy vulnerabilities of possible opponents, including former Vice President Joe Biden’s support for the unpopular Iraq War and suggesting Warren and Sanders are unwilling to stand up to global bad guys.
“FACT: President Trump Is Cleaning Up Joe Biden's Iran Mess," the campaign wrote in a Monday email blast that slammed the “Obama-Biden" Iran nuclear deal as a disaster and accused them of a policy of appeasement that emboldened Iran.
In the Democratic nominating contest, foreign policy has yet to become a front-burner issue, even as Biden, the leader in most national polls, has tried intermittently to capitalize on his long tenure on the world stage. Biden on Tuesday scorched Trump for his “dangerously incompetent” handling of Iran, first by abandoning the multilateral nuclear deal, then charging into sanctions and ordering Soleimani’s killing without consulting Congress or U.S. allies.
“I said not long ago that as the walls close in on this president, I worried that he was going to get us in war with Iraq, as the ultimate wag the dog," Biden said at a fundraiser, where he twice appeared to confuse Iraq with Iran.
Yet the debate over the wisdom of killing Soleimani has also divided some Republicans, including the two most popular personalities at Fox News Channel: Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. The two generally reach more than 3 million viewers apiece in the network’s prime-time lineup, often including the president himself.
Carlson has questioned the president's move, saying it perplexes him Trump supporters who have taken a skeptical view of the intelligence community now unquestioningly accepts its assessment of future threats from Iran.
“It seems like just 20 minutes ago we were denouncing these same people as ‘the deep state’ and pledging never to trust them again without verification,” Carlson said on Monday night’s show.
Hannity, whose show directly follows Carlson’s on Fox, offered a typically full-throated defense of the president Monday and said “the mob, the media, the Democratic Party” are distraught over Trump’s huge success.
Trump, who has a long history of obfuscation and exaggeration, has insisted that his move prevented an imminent attack and was warranted given Soleimani's past conduct.
“He was planning a very big attack and a very bad attack for us, and other people, and we stopped him. And I don't think anybody can complain about it," Trump told reporters Tuesday in the Oval Office.
Yet Trump himself has fueled speculation about leaders starting wars for their own benefit.
“In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran," Trump tweeted in November 2011, warning a year later: “Don't let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected--be careful Republicans!"
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers David Bauder in New York and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.