Mere hours after President Donald Trump posted a tweet threatening to commit war crimes by launching military strikes against cultural sites in Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on the Sunday morning TV news shows to do damage control. But his efforts were unpersuasive, in part because within a matter of hours Trump demolished them.
The disconnect between what Pompeo said during his media tour and what his boss said hours later was an especially stark illustration of the Trump administration’s complete lack of credibility.
Worryingly, this credibility deficiency is on public display at a time when Pompeo is asking Americans to have blind faith in the Trump administration. The administration has not shared evidence proving it had good reason for ratcheting up tensions in the Middle East by killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary forces, in an airstrike in Iraq last Thursday. Pompeo, however, insisted on Sunday that there’s no reason to worry about it.
We’re no longer talking about relatively silly matters like the president using a Sharpie to manipulate storm forecasts — we’re talking about war and peace. And yet Pompeo went on TV and offered talking points about about the Soleimani strike and the president’s response to it that were not only implausible on their face but were completely discredited by comments Trump made hours later.
Pompeo wants you to believe Trump didn’t actually say what he publicly said
Grilled by This Week host George Stephanopoulos about why Trump threatened Iran with attacks that would constitute war crimes, Pompeo insisted that Trump didn’t really mean what he had said on Twitter just hours earlier.
“We’ll behave lawfully,” Pompeo said. “We’ll behave inside the system.”
Stephanopoulos pressed the point.
“So just to be clear, when the president said he had 52 Iranian sites [in mind for strikes] — including sites important to the Iranian culture — that wasn’t accurate?” he asked.
Pompeo, however, wouldn’t give an inch.
“George, I’ve seen what we are planning in terms of the target set ... the American people should know that every target we strike will be a lawful target,” he responded.
"Why is the president threatening Iran with war crimes?" @GStephanopoulos asks Pompeo as Trump tweets cultural sites in Iran could be targeted.— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) January 5, 2020
Pompeo: "We'll behave lawfully"
Stephanopoulos: Is Trump's tweet inaccurate?
Pompeo: Targets will be "lawful" https://t.co/1J2ETJoOfK pic.twitter.com/TP89cwkO5N
But whether Pompeo is willing to acknowledge it or not, there’s no doubt that attacks on cultural sites in Iran would be a war crime.
The Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibit “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples ... to use such objects in support of the military effort ... [and] to make such objects the object of reprisals.” Based on his tweets, that seems to be the exact sort of “hostility” and “reprisal” that Trump has in mind.
When Pompeo pushed the same talking point during an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, host Jake Tapper pointed out the contradiction in his statement, telling Pompeo, “You’re saying two different things there, sir, with all due respect, because Trump’s threat on Iranian cultural centers ... would not be in accordance with international law.”
Tapper calls out Pompeo for defending Trump's war crime tweet while also saying the admin will act consistently with international law.— Lis Power (@LisPower1) January 5, 2020
Tapper: 'You're saying two different things there sir, with all due respect, because Trump's threat is not in accordance with int'l law' pic.twitter.com/4zRAyq0eRz
Pompeo responded by saying, “They’re not two different things. ... We will be bold in protecting American interests, and we’ll do so in a way that’s consistent with the rule of law,” which would suggest the administration is — despite the president’s tweets — unwilling to target cultural sites.
But if there was any doubt that Pompeo’s claims amounted to little more than gaslighting, Trump himself resolved it hours later when he reiterated his interest in military strikes on Iranian cultural targets during comments made to reporters aboard Air Force One.
“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way,” Trump said, according to Maggie Haberman of the New York Times.
Pompeo’s comments about Trump’s interest in war crimes weren’t the only ones from his Sunday TV appearances that very quickly aged poorly. During an interview on Fox News Sunday, Pompeo tried to quell concerns that Trump is planning disproportionately harsh strikes against Iran, saying the commander in chief “will take responses that are appropriate and commensurate with actions that threaten American lives.”
But in a tweet posted hours later, Trump made clear that he has no qualms about disproportionate strikes that would, like attacks on cultural sites, run afoul of international law.
“These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner,” Trump wrote. “Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”
These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner. Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2020
Pompeo, of course, has a history of going on TV and attempting to gaslight people in service of Trump. As my colleague Matthew Yglesias wrote last Friday, Pompeo “engages in routine misstatements about Iran specifically, including lies about Iranian nuclear research,” an important fact to keep in mind because he’s “become the public face of the administration on [the Iran] issue.”
But the irony is that while Pompeo is publicly offering impossible-to-swallow defenses of Trump’s statements about Iran, he’s also urging Americans to trust him and the administration when they claim it was necessary to drag America to the brink of war by assassinating Soleimani in the first place.
“There’s things we simply cannot make public about what it is we knew at that time and what in fact we know today about the continuing activity,” Pompeo told host Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. “I think any reasonable person who saw the intelligence that the senior American leaders had in their possession would’ve come to the same conclusion that President Trump and our leadership team about the fact that there would’ve been more risk to America, more risk through inaction.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined FOX News Sunday to discuss breaking news regarding heightened US-Iran tensions in the wake of an attack that killed Soleimani. The Trump administration says he was planning imminent attacks. Secretary Pompeo reacts. #FNS #foxnews pic.twitter.com/zo7nkdtrZ1— FoxNewsSunday (@FoxNewsSunday) January 5, 2020
But, in an unusual move, the formal notification the administration sent to Congress on Saturday about the Soleimani killing was entirely classified. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded by saying the notification “raises more questions than it answers” and “compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security.”
Given Pompeo’s long history of obfuscations, one thing that’s clear at this point is that nothing he or his boss says can be taken at face value.