Ahead Of Potential Crisis With Iran, Trump’s Lack Of Credibility Comes Home To Roost
As we head toward a potential crisis in the Persian Gulf, the consequences of the President's lies are coming home to roost.
As I noted earlier today, tensions in the Persian Gulf region are increasing in the wake of attacks on two tankers bound for Asia, Iran’s threat to take steps that would bring it close to violating the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action (JCPOA) and the United States upping its military readiness in the area. As all this happens, though, the Trump Administration is finding itself having to deal with a problem created entirely by the President, a lack of credibility:
WASHINGTON — To President Trump, the question of culpability in the explosions that crippled two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman is no question at all. “It’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it,” he declared on Friday.
The question is whether the writing is clear to everyone else. For any president, accusing another country of an act of war presents an enormous challenge to overcome skepticism at home and abroad. But for a president known for falsehoods and crisis-churning bombast, the test of credibility appears far more daunting.
For two and a half years in office, Mr. Trump has spun out so many misleading or untrue statements about himself, his enemies, his policies, his politics, his family, his personal story, his finances and his interactions with staff that even his own former communications director once said “he’s a liar” and many Americans long ago concluded that he cannot be trusted.
Fact-checking Mr. Trump is a full-time occupation in Washington, and in no other circumstance is faith in a president’s word as vital as in matters of war and peace. The public grew cynical about presidents and intelligence after George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on false accusations of weapons of mass destruction, and the doubt spilled over to Barack Obama when he accused Syria of gassing its own people. As Mr. Trump confronts Iran, he carries the burden of their history and his own.
“The problem is twofold for them,” said John E. McLaughlin, a deputy C.I.A. director during the Iraq war. “One is people will always rightly question intelligence because it’s not an exact science. But the most important problem for them is their own credibility and contradictions.”
The task is all the more formidable for Mr. Trump, who himself has assailed the reliability of America’s intelligence agencies and even the intelligence chiefs he appointed, suggesting they could not be believed when their conclusions have not fit his worldview.
At one point shortly before taking the oath of office, he compared intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany and ever since has cast doubt on their findings about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. This year, he repudiated his intelligence chiefs for their assessments of issues like Iran, declaring that “they are wrong” and “should go back to school.” And just this week, he rebuked the C.I.A. for using a brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as an informant, saying, “I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices.”
All of that can raise questions when international tension flares up, like the explosion of the two oil tankers on Thursday, a provocation that fueled anxiety about the world’s most important oil shipping route and the prospect of escalation into military conflict. When Mr. Trump told Fox News on Friday that “Iran did do it,” he was asking his country to accept his word.
“Trump’s credibility is about as solid as a snake oil salesman,” said Jen Psaki, who was the White House communications director and top State Department spokeswoman under Mr. Obama. “That may work for selling his particular brand to his political base, but during serious times, it leaves him without a wealth of good will and trust from the public that what he is saying is true even on an issue as serious as Iran’s complicity in the tanker explosions.”
When it came to this week’s oil tanker explosions, Mr. Trump at first left it to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to point the finger at Iran and he followed up a day later. To bolster the case, the United States military released video footage that American officers said showed an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps patrol boat pulling alongside one of the stricken ships several hours after the first explosion and removing an unexploded limpet mine in broad daylight. That mine is what Mr. Trump said had “Iran written all over it.”
Iran has denied responsibility and suggested that the episode was a “false flag” operation by the United States to frame it and justify aggression. But Iran has its own credibility issues, and even Mr. Trump’s critics were generally not rushing to accept Tehran’s word.
“Look, it could very well have been the Iranians,” said Trita Parsi, a scholar at Georgetown University and the founder of the National Iranian American Council. “I don’t think anyone can say they’re innocent.”
But Mr. Trump’s “relationship with the truth” is so suspect, he said, it argues for stepping back and not drawing conclusions until there is more evidence. “With this president, with the country already so divided, even those who support him may not be totally confident that everything he’s saying is truthful,” said Mr. Parsi, the author of “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.”
It’s easy to understand why the President’s credibility is such an important issue as we head toward what could be the first real foreign policy crisis of his Administration. As I noted just last week, The Washington Post’s fact checker has cataloged more than 10,000 lies or misleading statements on the President’s part since his Inauguration. If we added in the number from the campaign, I’m sure we’d be over 20,000 at this point. Given these numbers, it isn’t surprising that polling has shown that the public doesn’t trust the President to tell the truth. A recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, found that just 35% of the American public expects the President to tell the truth about issues of importance to the nation. This stands in marked opposition to the media which Trump routinely dismisses as “Fake News,” which 52% of respondents say they trusted more than the President. This is consistent with other public polling that shows large segments of the public simply don’t trust anything the President has to say.
Trump’s credibility issues are also having an impact on how the international community is reacting to events in the Persian Gulf:
As U.S. allies pressed the Trump administration for more concrete evidence linking Iran to attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that additional proof will be forthcoming.
Japan and Germany have requested stronger evidence than the grainy video released by the Pentagon appearing to show an Iranian patrol boat removing from one of the ships an item said to be an unexploded mine.
Pompeo said in appearances on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and “Fox News Sunday” that he had spent much of the weekend talking with his counterparts in foreign capitals. It was an implicit acknowledgment that he has work to do convincing the world the U.S. accusations against Iran, which has denied responsibility for the suspicious explosions last week, are indeed, as Pompeo put it, “indisputable” and “unmistakable.”
“There is no doubt,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence. The world will come to see much of it, but the American people should rest assured we have high confidence with respect to who conducted these attacks as well as half a dozen other attacks throughout the world over the past 40 days.”
Last week’s tanker attacks have laid bare a credibility problem burdening the Trump administration as it faces skepticism, especially from wary U.S. allies urging “maximum restraint” to avoid a spiraling confrontation between the United States and Iran.
Pompeo bristled at the suggestion that the U.S. conclusion was under question, including German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s request for more information because the video was “not enough.”
“The German foreign minister has seen a great deal more than just that video,” Pompeo said on CBS. “He will continue to see more.”
But the uncertainty has persisted. Some is rooted in a suspicion of President Trump, who has made numerous misleading statements in the past. Some is focused on the national security adviser, John Bolton, who advocated the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the faulty assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
And some skepticism is aimed at Pompeo. In laying out a litany of Iran’s behavior in recent weeks, Pompeo said Tehran was behind a May 31 car bomb in Kabul as a U.S. convoy was passing, lightly injuring four U.S. service members and killing four Afghans. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that. But Pompeo said the Taliban claim should not be believed.
“We have confidence that Iran instigated this attack,” he said Sunday when asked about the discrepancy, adding, “I wouldn’t have said it if the intelligence community hadn’t become convinced that this was the case.”
Samantha Vinograd makes a similar argument in an opinion post on CNN.com but also points out that doubts in the international community about American credibility pre-date Trump and go back to the run-up to the Iraq War:
As tensions with Iran escalate, doubts over whether to trust the intelligence community are percolating. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Last month, the State Department withdrew personnel from Iraq, citing an increased threat from Iran. Shortly after the announcement, there were questions, including from members of Congress, about whether the intelligence cited held water.
Now, fresh debate has ensued regarding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s rapid assessment that Iran was responsible for recent attacks on commercial vessels in the Gulf of Oman. The United Kingdom has supported the US assessment, while other allies, like Germany, have taken a more cautious approach.
But the truth is, much of this doubt existed even before Trump became President. Ever since the Iraq War, when the United States launched a military invasion and roped our allies into it based on faulty intelligence, the trust deficit over US intelligence has been high when it comes to the Middle East.
Of course, Trump has not helped matters. He has openly questioned the intelligence community’s assessments on numerous occasions. And his doubts make convincing our allies to trust us that much harder.
Here’s just a few examples. He sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and called his own intelligence community “extremely passive and naive” when they assessed that Iran was not taking steps toward a nuclear bomb and that North Korea will not denuclearize.
And in his recent ABC interview, Trump even threw his FBI director under the bus, saying that Christopher Wray was wrong when he said candidates should call the FBI if foreign governments contact them.
Because he questions the intelligence community’s analysis on everything that doesn’t align with his personal agenda, he may be leading by example on Iran. In fact, Trump has called previous assessments on Iran “naive,” but this time around, when their assessments match his personal views — and desire to take decisive action against Iran — he now trusts the intelligence community and expects everyone else to do so, too.
When it comes to sowing mistrust in the intelligence community, Trump’s made his bed. But lying in it may be more uncomfortable than he anticipated.
In addition to casting doubt on the credibility of American intelligence agencies, the President has also succeeded in deteriorating our relationships with our closest allies to an extent that no previous President dating back to the end of World War II has done. For the past two and a half years, Trump has spit in the face of the alliances that have kept the peace for the past seven decades, a topic I’ve written extensively in the past, especially here, here, and here. He has called into question the integrity and resolve of the American commitment to the NATO alliance. He has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, one of the hallmarks of the end of the Cold War. And he has done all of this while seeming by all appearances to coddle dictators in nations such as Russia, China, North Korea, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. In addition to the fact that all of these moves and miscues clearly benefit only one man and one nation, they have already sent a message to America’s allies that the United States can’t necessarily be trusted to stand by its allies. Given that it is hardly surprising that our allies are expressing doubts about American credibility now.
To the extent that there are doubts about his credibility, President Trump has nobody to blame but himself. His inability to go more than a few minutes at a time telling the truth, combined with his own conscious efforts to undermine the intelligence community and other sources of information such as the news media were always going to have a real-world impact at some point Additionally, his rejection of the alliances that have kept the peace since the end of World War Two has created understandable resentment and doubts about America’s credibility and reliability.
In the past, I’ve openly wondered what impact all of this, the lying, the fraying of relationships with traditional allies, and the bombast, would have if and when a time came when this President faced a crisis. As we head toward a potential crisis in the Persian Gulf, it appears we’re all going to find out.