By Michael D Shear, Helene Cooper & Eric Schmitt
US President Trump said Friday morning that the United States military had been “cocked and loaded” for a strike against Iran Thursday night, but that he called it off with 10 minutes to spare when a general told him that 150 people would probably die in the attack.
In a series of tweets on Friday morning, Trump said he was prepared to retaliate against three sites in Iran for that country’s downing of an American surveillance drone, but that he pulled back because the death of that many Iranians would not be “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
Trump said in an NBC interview later on Friday that news reports that he had called off the mission while it was underway were inaccurate. But two senior United States officials said again on Friday that the military had received the president’s go-ahead and that jets were headed toward targets in Iran when the mission was aborted.
Thursday’s on-again, off-again episode was another chaotic moment on the world stage for a president whose credibility with allies is already strained from two and a half years of delivering bellicose threats, sometimes without following through. But a person familiar with Trump’s thinking said that the president, for one, was pleased with Thursday night’s events because he liked the “command” of approving the strike, but also the decisiveness of calling it off.
“I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it’,” Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd in an interview that took place Friday and is to be broadcast Sunday. “And here we are, sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead. And I didn’t like it.”
The president’s description of his decision-making process, unorthodox for previous presidents, was part of a day of shifting stories and contradictory statements that made it difficult to resolve outstanding questions about how the confrontation unfolded.
Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff who frequently talks to Trump, said Friday that he was told the Iranians privately expressed frustration to the United States about an Iranian tactical commander who went too far in firing the missile that took down the American drone.
“They’re frustrated and furious with what happened,” Keane said.
But that was contradicted in public statements on Friday from Iranian officials, who insisted they purposely took the drone down to send Americans a message.
On Friday, another conflicting narrative continued: the dispute over the location of the drone when it was shot down.
To bolster its claims, Iran had released video late Thursday of what it said was the moment the drone was shot down. A top Iranian commander also claimed on Twitter on Friday that a second American aircraft — a surveillance plane capable of carrying 35 passengers and crew members — had violated Iranian airspace. But he said the Iranian military chose not to shoot it down.
“We did not do this. Because our goal was to warn Americans,” wrote Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a commander with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
American officials countered Iran’s claims with images of the drone’s flight path that they insisted showed it had never entered Iranian airspace. The images offered little context and initially included an incorrect description of the drone’s flight path.
On Friday night, the Pentagon confirmed the presence of a second surveillance aircraft, a Navy P-8A Poseidon, which officials said took photographs of the drone being shot down.
But a senior Trump administration official said there was concern inside the United States government about whether the drone, or another American surveillance aircraft, or even the P-8A manned aircraft flown by a military aircrew, actually did violate Iranian airspace at some point. The official said the doubt was one of the reasons Trump called off the strike.
In his tweets on Friday morning, Trump called Iran a “much weakened nation” because he decided to withdraw from the nuclear agreement negotiated by his predecessor and because of the sanctions that his administration had imposed. He also suggested that new sanctions had been imposed on Iran on Thursday night, but he did not elaborate.
“Sanctions are biting & more added last night,” he tweeted. “Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”
Critical reaction to the president’s decision came swiftly on Friday, suggesting that the aborted strike could exacerbate divisions on national security within the Republican Party, between those agitating for more aggressive action and others deeply opposed.
“The failure to respond to this kind of direct provocation that we’ve seen now from the Iranians, in particular over the last several weeks, could in fact be a very serious mistake,” Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the chairwoman of the Republican Conference, told Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, in an interview.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, blasted Trump, tweeting: “There is no justification for further escalating this crisis — we need to step back from the brink of war.”
Top Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, said they were not informed of the planned strikes, a departure from normal practice.
“I did not receive any heads-up that there was a strike that was in the works,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters.
European allies were noticeably quiet on Friday beyond asking both Washington and Tehran not to further drive up tensions. Middle East experts said the flare-up underscored the contradictions in Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Tehran, which has squeezed the Iranian economy with sanctions on its crucial oil exports while demanding concessions from Iran.
Trump, the experts said, has given hard-liners in Iran reason to support retaliation against the United States. They cited the recent attacks on oil tankers in waters near Iran.
“Iran’s actions in the gulf, while outrageous and unacceptable, show that it has cards to play, too, and force the administration to confront the trade-offs and contradictions it has been able to avoid,” said Derek Chollet, an executive vice president for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund and a former senior defense official in the Obama administration.
This is not the first time that the United States and Iran have offered conflicting accounts of American military actions near Iran.
On July 3, 1988, the Vincennes, a Navy guided missile cruiser, shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people. The Defense Department initially denied that the Vincennes had shot it down. Then the Pentagon said that the jet was descending toward the ship in a threatening manner. The Defense Department also said it radioed the plane repeatedly in warning.
The first two assertions turned out to be false and the last assertion irrelevant because the Navy was using a frequency rarely checked by passenger jets. In 1996, the United States, expressing “deep regret,” agreed to pay $61.8 million to the victims’ families.