White House

3 things to watch: Before any Iran conflict, Trump faces war within his own team

'Iran made a very big mistake,' president warns in cryptic tweet after U.S. drone shot down

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., are among the more promiment hawks when it comes to Iran. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS | Donald Trump is facing one of the biggest tests of his presidency after Iran shot down a U.S. military aircraft, prompting him to declare the islamic republic “made a very big mistake.”

His tweet at 10:16 a.m. Thursday broke the nearly 15 hours of essential White House silence on the missile takedown of the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone aircraft. But the U.S. commander in chief did not suggest he is ready to respond — even after a top Iranian official admitted the shootdown was meant as a “clear message” to Washington.

That came the morning after Trump declared on his latest phone call into Fox News that Americans should not “worry about a thing” because the situation is “under control.”

Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, an Armed Services Committee members, is warning “this whole situation is, in my view, fraught with peril.” On CNN Thursday morning, she said “if there is any kind of kinetic strike by either country, it could quickly escalate into something akin to a war.”

Here are three things to watch as Trump and his team mull their next moves.

Internal war

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has long advocated for regime change in Iran. Candidate Trump, echoed at times by President Trump, slammed George W. Bush and Obama administration officials for America’s post-9/11 conflicts in the Middle East, saying they cost too much American blood and treasure.

[Marco Rubio has some advice for the Democrats on the presidential debate stage next week]

Bolton, in a May statement about sending an aircraft carrier strike group to the region, said the move was made “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

The president on Tuesday was more circumspect when a reporter asked him about the tensions: “We're looking at Iran. We have a lot of things going with Iran.”

He then pivoted to his often-espoused line that Iran has long been “a nation of terror” but is “much different” since he took office.

Trump will likely continue to hear different messages from advisers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday said “President Trump does not want war” — but said it inside a military hangar at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, making the visual and spoken messages far from consistent.

‘Mutual enablers’

On everything from tax cuts to immigration to health care, Trump has gravitated toward congressional Republican hardliners.

Enter another Senate Armed Services member, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton. He told Politico this week he sees “more than ample targets that can deter Iran from this kind of malicious behavior, whether it’s naval bases or munition storage or refining capabilities,” referring to recent attacks on oil tanker ships in the region that the U.S. and other Western governments have pinned on Tehran.

Cotton is pushing strikes against Iran “to inflict enough pain on Tehran that they realize that we’re not going to tolerate these kind of attacks on the high seas.” Such calls worry many Democrats and former U.S. officials.

“I’m glad he thinks there’s nothing to worry about,” Hirono said Thursday. “But if you were to, perhaps, talk to people in the intel community, or people at Central Command, — there’s nothing to worry about? Is that why they’re sending 1,000 more troops to the Middle East?” 

[Trump kicks off re-election bid that could extend key legal protections into 2025]

William Burns, who held senior State Department positions under Republican and Democratic presidents, warned recently that “we’re on the verge right now of a situation where hardliners in both Tehran and Washington — and there’s no shortage in either capital right now — become kind of mutual enablers.”

Exit strategy?

One of the lessons from the Bush administration’s Iraq conflict was its lack of an exit strategy.

A senior White House official this week dismissed a reporter’s question about whether White House, Pentagon, State Department and intelligence officials have discussed how they might untangle what would be a complex conflict with Iran.

The senior official brushed off the question, calling it “premature,” while saying the U.S. would defend its interest and forces in the region.

But Burns recently told NPR that “you've got to be really careful about the danger of collisions — whether advertent or inadvertent — as well as a lot of collateral damage.”

Even while appearing to still prefer negotiations about a broader deal with Tehran than former President Barack Obama signed, Trump on Tuesday had a thinly veiled message for Iranian leaders before they took down the drone: “We’re very prepared for Iran.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.