Trump’s approach to the presidency adds to the uncertainty of an increasingly volatile situation in the Middle East, with the administration deploying thousands of additional troops to the region even as Iran vows to take revenge with attacks on unspecified targets.
Former US national security officials described the situation as worrisome in part because of Iran’s capabilities, but also because of Trump’s tendency to ignore advisers and favoir instinct over information.
“That’s going to be a problem going forward if this situation deteriorates,” said John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the CIA. Trump and members of his Cabinet with critical roles in a potential conflict with Iran have two defining qualities, McLaughlin said: “low credibility and limited experience.”
So far, Trump appears to be leaning on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the longest-standing member of Trump’s inner circle, having served as CIA director before moving to the State Department.
Even so, the administration’s initial statements about the air strike – including those made by Pompeo in a string of television appearances and calls to foreign counterparts – have at times been contradictory and greeted with skepticism.
In a television interview on Friday, Pompeo repeatedly emphasised that the decision to target Soleimani was driven by US intelligence warning of “imminent” danger to American lives overseas.
Members of Congress emerged from private briefings with US intelligence officials that same day saying they heard nothing to suggest that the threat had changed in recent months.
Pompeo asserted that “the world is a safer place today” even as Americans were urged to evacuate from Iraq and as American troops were being rushed to the Middle East.
Pompeo’s elevated standing in the cabinet is in part a reflection of the stream of departures from the administration. Former defence secretary Jim Mattis, who served as a Marine general in Iraq and Afghanistan, resigned last year, and Trump has gone through three national security advisers.
The current national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, stepped into the job in September. He is a lawyer who served in the US Army Reserve, but who has little expertise on Iran or the Middle East.
Turmoil within the National Security Council has further eroded critical areas of expertise, including counterterrorism.
US officials fear that Iran may seek to retaliate for Soleimani’s death by using its networks of paramilitary proxies in Iraq and Syria, or its links to terror groups including Hezbollah. If so, coordinating the counterterrorism efforts of the CIA, FBI and other agencies could prove critical to safeguarding potential American targets.
But the top counterterrorism official at the National Security Council was installed in the job late last year and has less experience than many of his predecessors. Kash Patel has a strained relationship with the CIA and FBI, current and former officials said, in part because of his involvement in efforts by Trump and his allies to discredit those agencies.
Trump has spent much of his presidency attacking US spy agencies, rejecting their conclusions on critical issues ranging from Russia’s interference in the presidential election to the complicity of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
And yet Trump and other officials have pinned the decision to target Soleimani on intelligence from those same agencies the President disparages.
Trump’s penchant for making false or exaggerated claims – something he has done more than 15,000 times while in office, according to a tally by The Washington Post – has likely compounded that credibility gap.
McLaughlin recalled a famous episode in the Cold War when President John Kennedy dispatched Dean Acheson, then Secretary of State, to Paris to brief French President Charles de Gaulle on the US discovery of Soviet attempts to install missiles in Cuba.
Acheson brought satellite images to show de Gaulle, but the French President – reportedly miffed that he was merely being “informed” about the development rather than “consulted” on any response – waved the photos away, saying that the word of the President was sufficient.
“That’s not going to happen with Trump,” McLaughlin said.
The Washington Post