Unnamed senior officials insist that they were “stunned” when Donald Trump decided to kill Iranian Major General Quassem Soleimani, as the attack was never considered a serious suggestion, the New York Times reported Saturday evening. As Mark Sumner noted earlier in the day, officials had previously described the deadly airstrike as the “far out” option, but the Times’ latest reporting notes that that the hit on Soleimani was not pitched to Trump as a viable course of action. Instead, the “most extreme” deed was intended to be a spoonful of sugar to nudge Trump towards better choices.
American military officials put the option of killing him — which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq — on the menu they presented to President Trump.
They didn’t think he would take it. In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.
The “menu” of options was first presented to Trump at Mar-a-lago on one day after the Dec. 27 military base attack that killed an American contractor, and included “strikes on Iranian ships or missile facilities or against Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq.” Pentagon officials “tacked on” the Suleimani hit, the Times reports, “mainly to make other options seem reasonable.”
At first, the long-used scheme worked: The president chose to go after militias, and five different locations were attacked on Sunday. It was only after the resulting violent protests at the U.S. embassy that Trump, “fuming,” decided that Soleimani had to go.
Aides said he worried that no response would look weak after repeated threats by the United States.
When Mr. Trump chose the option of killing General Suleimani, top military officials, flabbergasted, were immediately alarmed about the prospect of Iranian retaliatory strikes on American troops in the region.
It remains unclear if anyone in the administration ever challenged Trump’s terrible choice.