President Donald Trump stared down a united front as he huddled with his top national security advisers in July 2017 to decide whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal.
For nearly an hour, Trump delivered what one official described as an “extended outburst,” railing against the Iran deal and the aides trying to block him from tearing up the agreement. Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster unanimously urged him not to blow up the deal, warning of the fallout.
Two years later, none of those advisers remain and the President has long since abandoned the Iran deal.
Now Trump and a new set of hawkish advisers are pursuing a full-throttle policy of exerting maximum pressure on Iran, dealing a severe blow to its economy that experts say has painted the country into a corner. The US this week found itself closer than it has in years to the prospect of armed conflict – and instead of cautious aides, the President is now the one hitting the brakes.
Having shed the most tenacious restraints on his hardline and sometimes reckless foreign policy inclinations, Trump has felt liberated to pursue a foreign policy agenda on Iran and other global hotspots that hews more closely to his muscular vision of US power.
But without a clear long-term strategy driving those actions, his current national security adviser, John Bolton, and other Iran hawks in the administration have found themselves in the driver’s seat, pushing the US and Iran closer to a breaking point.
And the President who bemoaned the guardrails that checked him at every impulse-driven bend – including a coterie of generals whose views of war were shaped by their own military experiences – now finds himself unbridled and uneasy.
Trump denied on Friday that anyone aside from him was making decisions on behalf of the administration. He also insisted there were no lingering frustrations at the team that is now crafting his foreign policy.
“I’m not angry, I make my own decisions,” the President said at a conference of realtors. “(Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo is doing a great job. Bolton is doing a great job.”
It was a cheery view, and one that officials say hasn’t always prevailed as Trump confronts new intelligence showing Iran placing missiles on boats in the Persian Gulf, leading to fears the country could attack US troops in the region.
The circle of advisers who now surround Trump have executed a forceful response to the intelligence – one that current and former officials say hasn’t necessarily jibed with the President’s own instincts.
“We’ve gone from folks who are pushing back on the President and kind of trying to restrain some of his more aggressive tendencies to folks who are actually forcing the President to push back on them and having the President restrain their aggressive tendencies,” said Fernando Cutz, a former senior adviser to McMaster. “The moderate in the room right now is actually the President.”
Trump indicated as much during an impromptu news conference in the Oval Office last week.
“I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing, isn’t it?” he said to laughter. “I’m the one that tempers him, but that’s OK. I have different sides. I mean I have John Bolton and I have other people that are a little more dove-ish than him. And ultimately I make the decision.”
Amid reports that Bolton had ordered updated contingency plans for an Iranian attack that would send as many as 120,000 US troops to the Middle East and US intelligence indicating a heightened threat of attack from Iran, Trump on Thursday headed for a diplomatic off-ramp, making clear to top aides that he does not want a war with Iran and signaling publicly to the Iranians that he is ready to talk.
Multiple current and former administration officials say that while Trump has pushed for a more hardline approach to Iran – tearing apart the nuclear deal and reimposing a slew of sanctions – he is not gunning for a hot war with the country. Instead, he has hoped that increased economic pressure would draw Iran back to the negotiating table to craft a stiffer nuclear agreement.
But few experts believe the President’s unilateral pressure will push Iran back to the negotiating table and Trump has not gamed out a path to achieving that aim, other than to keep sanctioning Iran.
“There’s not been a tendency toward thinking long-range. That’s the part that’s concerning. You just kind of move from one trash can fire to another trash can fire,” one former senior administration official said.
Bolton, on the other hand, has for years made clear that he supports regime change in Iran and has even – as a private citizen – called for military action against the country. In 2015, he wrote a New York Times op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” arguing that “a strike can still succeed.”
While Trump was aware of Bolton’s hawkish instincts when he hired him, he had promised the President that he wouldn’t “start any wars” and would serve Trump’s agenda. But the shrewd and sharp-elbowed bureaucratic infighter has worked every angle to drive his aims on Iran.
Bolton’s defenders argue that while he has long-held views on Iran, he is deferential to the President’s views. And they insist Bolton is not pushing Trump to go to war with Iran.
“(Bolton) has made it very clear that he is a member of the President’s team and carries out the President’s foreign policy,” said Fred Fleitz, Bolton’s former chief of staff. “This idea he might not be or might be carrying out policies the President doesn’t approve of is just absolutely false.”
A senior administration official offered a similar defense, and added: “Herding Trump down any path is an unsuccessful strategy.”
The generals are gone
Beyond Bolton’s presence, some of the most persistent checks on the President’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign policy have not only left but have been replaced by advisers with less foreign policy experience or drive to contain Trump’s impulses.
Mattis, McMaster, Tillerson and then-White House chief of staff John Kelly frequently found themselves pushing back on what they considered a mercurial President’s reckless impulses on the world stage – part of the reason those men fell from his favor. If they couldn’t convince Trump to back off a position, they slow-walked his orders, hoping he would forget about the matter or that they could convince him to change course at a later date.
That dynamic – which is one of Trump’s most reliable frustrations – was exposed in sharp relief in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which depicted numerous aides ignoring or skirting the President’s demands to short-circuit the probe into Russian election interference. Similar scenarios have played out on matters of trade and foreign policy as advisers work to prevent what they believe are rash or damaging actions.
As Trump mulled the merits of launching a limited military strike against North Korea in early 2018, he took the provocative step of ordering the evacuation of military families in South Korea – a move Mattis and other top national security officials feared could send a signal that the US was on a war footing.
As McMaster directed his National Security Council staff to begin drafting the order, Mattis worked with Kelly to dissuade the President, ultimately convincing him to issue a scaled-down directive barring military personnel in South Korea from bringing their families during future tours.
That memo was also never implemented – one of many presidential directives Mattis slow-walked with the hope that Trump would forget about them and move on.
Mattis, though, hit a final wall at the end of last year as the President moved to pull US troops from Syria, blindsiding his advisers. After failing to convince Trump to rethink his approach, Mattis resigned.
Replacing Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, is acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a conservative former congressman who has sought to influence the administration’s domestic policy agenda but has otherwise left Trump unfettered.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan – a former Boeing executive – has so far approached his position as that of a company executive working to implement the chief executive’s orders – a marked shift from Mattis’ approach.
Sources close to Trump said that’s why he formally nominated Shanahan earlier this month to take over the position, believing Shanahan won’t push any particular policy agenda on him.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.