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.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Intelligence, Iran, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Modulo Myself says:

    The same can be said for all of the Iran hawks. They’re dogshit humans–far-right Christians and neocons–and Trump is just carrying on in their tradition. This is the same GOP that went ballistic when Obama dared sign a treaty with Iran.

    To me, one of the good things is that Trump is so ineffectual and pathetic. Remember last month or so when we were pro-coup in Venezuela? Of course not. Nobody does. Let’s hope this will pass. The good thing about Trump is that his followers are delusional, so he can forget/back down/have a rally and it will all be good.

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  2. grumpy realist says:

    This is, of course, the same man who ended up lying about the productivity of his projects and failing to pay back bank loans to the point where no one in NYC would lend to him.

    Ever heard about the story The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Mr. Trump?

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  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    The boy who cried FAKE NEWS

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  4. michael reynolds says:

    It’s the dishonesty, but also the incompetence. Does anyone with an IQ above room temperature think this treasonous, criminal buffoon and the Bootlick Gang are capable of managing a war?

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  5. Joe says:

    I am not sure Trump’s constant undermining of the intelligence community will have such a big impact. Do you really think that the people who agreed with his negative assessment of our intelligence assets will suffer the slightest cognitive dissonance when Trump says he is sure it is Iran because of our intelligence community? Really?

    Alternatively, do you really think the majority of Americans or our allies ever seriously doubted that our intelligence community’s assessment of anything and everything – while always open to reasonable questioning – was way more credible than Trump?

    The only real question is whether this is really the assessment of our intelligence community. I heard on the radio a few minutes ago that Adam Schiff has agreed that the intelligence is strong that this was Iran and, for me, that was like – ok then. This was Iran. What happens next. At which point, I headed to the same question that michael raises.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    It’s more than Trump. As noted, it’s the lies leading to Iraq, it’s Tonkin Gulf. It goes all the way back past the Maine to the Mexican War. I understand Schiff has indicated it’s Iran, which gives it some whiff of credibility, but I want to see real proof.

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  7. michael reynolds says:

    @Joe:
    I just moved into Adam Schiff’s district, and many long years ago he was among the first bunch of pols I contributed to. I like him. I trust him. But I trusted Colin Powell, too.

    The next issue to consider is why this is our problem. Iran hasn’t attacked a US ship. The Japanese have forces. The Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis who so desperately want us to slaughter Shi’ites for them all have their own powerful militaries. At this point this does not need to be our problem.

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  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Iran hasn’t attacked a US ship.

    Even if Iran wanted to, I’m not sure they could find a US flagged merchant ship. They’re kind of like unicorns these days.

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  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Then I guess we’ve got no dog in this fight.

    Seriously, we don’t have much need for middle eastern oil. We have no dog in the Sunni/Shia wars. Our regional ‘allies’ are a brazen murderer and a corrupt wannabe-fascist. Why is this our problem? For all Trump’s ranting about NATO, it’s these a-holes who are using us and giving us nothing of value in return – though of course ‘us’ doesn’t include Saudi and Emirati money funneled to Trump and his creepy son-in-law.

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  10. Teve says:

    @michael reynolds: if Star trek the next generation was getting a reboot and you were in charge of casting for some cousins of Commander Data, don’t tell me you wouldn’t see if Mark Zuckerberg and Jared Jushner had agents. They barely need the makeup.

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  11. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Remember the election when GWB ran against John Kerry? Kerry said that the rest of the world should be able to trust the word of the President of the United States, just like De Gaulle didn’t require proof that the Russians had missiles in Cuba because Kennedy’s word was enough for him. And GWB would tell his crowds that Kerry said that the US President required permission from the rest of the world before he could take action. He’d look out and say in that fake-folksy drawl, “That’s what he sayyys.”

    Republicans lie, and have lied for a very long time. Trump is the latest and most blatant, but it’s a long line that’s brought us here.

    What is the GOP going to do to stop lying?

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  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Teve:
    I believe you’ve just found Jared’s next career. After the Arabs cut him off he’ll be broke and need the paycheck. But I suspect Zuckerberg’s ‘quote’ would be rather steep.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    Will the disapproval of 58% of the American people or the lack of our European allies going to change whether the Trump administration sends our troops to kill a whole bunch of Iranians? Will the Saudis not let us use their territory as a staging ground?

    The 42% will love it. And that’s what Trump sees.

    I don’t think the lack of credibility changes anything.

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  14. Lounsbury says:

    @michael reynolds: Mate, the Saudis and the Emiratis have expensive militaries as show pieces. Powerful, well… rather different subject.

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  15. Kathy says:

    I don’t question trump’s credibility. he has none.

    But maybe this time he can bring along a big, beautiful alliance. See, unlike Bush, he will threaten any countries hesitant to cooperate with really yuge tariffs.

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  16. JohnMcC says:

    I dropped a short note into Comments on the previous Iran-tension post pointing to oil’s world commodities price; light-sweet-crude is at the very low price of $53.65 per the NYT a few minutes ago. It’s cycled around that price for several weeks and that’s approx. the lowest price in the past year. I see regular unleaded gasoline at $2.30/gal just around the corner.

    If Mr Trump is trying to get the world into a state of fear, he’s amazingly incompetent at it.

    And I see he is attempting to threaten war with a Defense Dep’t that hasn’t actually had a head honcho for — what? — a year. And that Mr Shanahan has decided it’s not the job for him after all. Sort of reminds me of Stalin’s purge of Red Army generals just before Barbar0ssa fell on them.

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  17. michael reynolds says:

    @Lounsbury:
    Indeed. I should have said ‘powerful on paper.’ Netanyahu’s another matter, he has an air force and an army.

    The princes like their jets, but you can’t build much of an army out of Filipino guest workers. They want American and British soldiers to do the killing and the dying, and they would love our taxpayers to foot the bill. But if we’re to play empire then we should set the agenda, not be mercenaries for MBS, and I’ll be damned if I see why this is our problem to deal with. Particularly at a time when both the US and UK are led by cretins. Pompeo’s just a dumber Cheney, as Trump is a dumber George W.

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  18. Jay L Gischer says:

    Unfortunately, I think the credibility damage probably goes far beyond Trump personally. One of the goals of information warfare is to so muddy the picture that you just have to go with feeling, rather than reported fact. And we’re ever edging closer to that state.

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  19. Kathy says:

    Another question is what will it get to contain Iran again. I suppose they’d be ok with a return to the JCPOA now, which we all know won’t happen because cheetos don’t make mistakes, but even then they would demand better terms (who wouldn’t?).

    It’s a bit like Schrodinger’s Treaty, isn’t it? Iran is breaking it, but keeping it. And no one, except Dennison, will call them on it given that the US has already shattered it.

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  20. Andrew says:

    It is funny, the only people willing to believe the bullshit about Iran are the ones willing to vote/work for FoxNews/or work for Trump.

    On a side note: Trump starts off his campaign tonight. Information has been leaked that Trump’s assistants secretly hired David Copperfield. Using his mirrors, David will make it seem to Trump there are so many more Trump supporters, without reflecting Donald. Making him feel better about himself, and less chance of a Twitter Tantrum.

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  21. Hal_10000 says:

    The first day Trump was President, he sent out his press secretary to scream at the press about how his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever, even though it was demonstrably not so. I can’t remember who it was but someone said this was setting a dangerous precedent. There comes a time when every President has to be able to tell the press something and be believed.

    We’re now seeing that come to fruition. I think it’s likely that Iran bombed those freighters. What we do about it is a big question. But it would be a lot easier if the President had destroyed his credibility on the most trivial crap imaginable.

    (Also easier if we hadn’t torn up the Iran deal, infuriated our allies and started seven trader wars. But I digress).

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  22. Teve says:

    @Hal_10000:

    The first day Trump was President, he sent out his press secretary to scream at the press about how his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever, even though it was demonstrably not so. I can’t remember who it was but someone said this was setting a dangerous precedent. There comes a time when every President has to be able to tell the press something and be believed.

    curiously, the New Yorker just put a post on Facebook asking if Sarah Huckabee Sanders was the future of the Republican party, and, sadly, the majority of the respondents so far have said, no, she’s the present of the Republican Party.

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  23. Ken_L says:

    Washington has framed the issue as one between America and Iran, and most media commentary has unthinkingly adopted that perspective. Yet the alleged attacks against the tankers concern just about every country OTHER THAN the USA. The ships weren’t registered in the US, they weren’t owned by the US, the cargoes hadn’t been bought by US customers, they weren’t in US waters or under the protection of the US navy. To put it shortly, America has no more business butting in to handle the affair than does New Zealand or Peru.

    The administration’s rush to take ownership of the conflict may only reflect the ‘world’s policeman’ role which Trump was supposed to have foresworn. But it’s much more likely to be driven by the desire to exploit the situation for its own political purposes.

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  24. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: I used to be in Schiff’s district, and he is a good guy. Got to meet with him once as part of a Writers Guild delegation and he was terrific in person. I was disappointed by his statement on Iran, but am sure he is keeping his eyes and mind open.

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  25. JKB says:

    Ruh roh

    German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported Chancellor Merkel’s statement:

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday there is “strong evidence” Iran was behind the twin tanker attacks near the strategic Strait of Hormuz. (…)

    Speaking at a news conference in Berlin alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Merkel called for a peaceful solution to tensions in the Persian Gulf.

    “We take these acts very seriously, there is strong evidence,” she said, referring to the US allegations that Iran was behind the attacks on the two tankers.

    “It is a very serious situation,” she said, adding that Germany would tell all sides and especially Iran, “that the situation should not escalate.”

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