In the five days prior to launching a strike that killed Iran’s most important military leader, Donald Trump roamed the halls of Mar-a-Lago, his private resort in Florida, and started dropping hints to close associates and club-goers that something huge was coming.
According to three people who’ve been at the president’s Palm Beach club over the past several days, Trump began telling friends and allies hanging at his perennial vacation getaway that he was working on a “big” response to the Iranian regime that they would be hearing or reading about very “soon.” His comments went beyond the New Year’s Eve tweet he sent out warning of the “big price” Iran would pay for damage to U.S. facilities. Two of these sources tell The Daily Beast that the president specifically mentioned he’d been in close contact with his top national security and military advisers on gaming out options for an aggressive action that could quickly materialize.
“He kept saying, ‘You’ll see,’” one of the sources recalled, describing a conversation with Trump days before Thursday’s strike.
Trump’s gossipy whispers regarding a “big” response in Iraq foreshadowed what was to come. After hours of silence, senior officials in the Trump administration argued that what had taken place in Iraq was not an act of aggression. Instead, they said both publicly and behind closed doors on the Hill that killing Qassem Soleimani was designed to “advance the cause of peace,” as U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook put it in a Friday interview.
Those Mar-a-Lago guests received more warning about Thursday’s attack than Senate staff did, and about as much clarity. A classified briefing on Friday, the first the administration gave to the Hill, featured broad claims about what the Iranians were planning and little evidence of planning to bring about the “de-escalation” the administration says it wants.
According to three sources either in the room or told about the discussion, briefers from the State Department, Pentagon, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence claimed that killing Soleimani was designed to block Iranian plans to kill “hundreds” or even thousands of Americans in the Mideast. That would be a massive escalation from the recent attack patterns of Iran and its regional proxies, who tend to kill Americans in small numbers at a time.
“This administration has absolutely not earned the benefit of the doubt when it makes these kinds of claims. When you’re taking action that could lead to the third American war in the Middle East in 20 years, you need to do better than these kinds of assertions,” said a Senate aide in the room. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also said publicly that the Iranians planned to kill hundreds of Americans before Soleimani’s killing.
Nor, said four sources who requested anonymity to discuss a classified briefing, did the briefers provide detail on a key question surrounding an act of war against a regional power: what next?