From the resort in the middle of palm trees, Trump decided to attack Iran
WEST PALM BEACH: Halfway through his annual Christmas vacation, President Donald Trump curled up in his Florida club with his top national security advisors. Days before, a rocket attack by an Iran-funded group hit an American-Iraqi base, killing an American contractor and injuring several others.
Trump's advisors presented him with a variety of options to respond, including the most dramatic response possible: eliminate General Qassem Soleimani, the elite chief of the Quds Force of Iran and the man responsible for hundreds of deaths of Americans.
Trump immediately wanted to target Soleimani. It was a decision that his predecessors had avoided and one that risked inflammatory tensions with Tehran. Some advisors expressed concern about the legal justification for a strike without evidence of an impending attack on the work against the Americans. Then, other options were discussed in the next few days with the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Defense Secretary Mark Esper and national security adviser Robert O'Brien, including the bombings at the base of the group, accused of killing the American contractor.
But Trump remained focused on the option of attacking Soleimani, a preference that surprised the small circle of assistants because the president had long been reluctant to deepen the United States' military commitment worldwide. By Thursday, authorities believed they had intelligence that indicated that Soleimani was conspiring against the Americans, although it is not clear when that intelligence was released to US officials.
Trump left a meeting with political advisors that day to give the final approval. His decision to authorize the drone attack has caused shock waves throughout the Middle East and dramatically increased tensions between the United States and Iran.
It was not the first time that the lush Trump Mar-a-Lake resort, with its annual membership of $ 200,000 and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, had been the backdrop for an important national security decision.
In February 2017, Trump curled up in the yard with Shinzo Abe from Japan, in view of the club members having dinner, to weigh the response to a North Korean missile test. Two months later, Trump authorized a US missile attack against Syria, then shared chocolate cake with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was visiting Mar-a-Lago to meet.
Trump spent much of this vacation angry at the attack on the American contractor. He remained largely out of sight in Florida, emerging only for rounds of golf at his other nearby club and mingling with guests at a New Year's Eve party.
Wearing a tuxedo, a journalist asked Trump if he foresaw a possibility of war with Iran. Raising his voice to be heard by party revelers, Trump said he wanted to `` have peace. ''
`` And Iran should want peace more than anyone, '' he said. `` Then I don't see that happening. No, I don't think Iran wants that to happen. I would go very fast. ''
He did not betray any indication of the transcendental decision he was already weighing. More than half a dozen administration officials, congressional staff and advisors close to the White House He described Trump's decision making. The majority spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss private deliberations.
After Trump took advantage of the option to eliminate Soleimani, national security officials debated where the targeted attack should occur if they proceeded. The majority did not want to attack Soleimani in Iraq, given the presence of US troops there and the already faint situation on the ground. Some argued that the operation would take place when Soleimani was traveling in Lebanon or Syria. But when they learned that Soleimani would travel to Baghdad on January 2, they decided that attacking him at the airport was their best chance.
That same day, Trump was meeting with his political advisors about his re-election campaign when he was called to give the final approval. Officials believed they had a legal justification and would cite intelligence information that suggests that Soleimani was traveling in the Middle East to give final touches to plans of attacks that would have affected US diplomats, soldiers and facilities in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
US officials have not been more specific about intelligence. A congressional aide informed by the administration on Friday said officials offered convincing details about Iran's intentions and capabilities, but not about the timing of the alleged attacks against the Americans.
The deliberations and Trump's final decision came quickly enough that in the hours before the attack Thursday night, contingency plans for a potential Iranian response were still being finalized. The White House communications team was not given a heads-up about the strike, leaving the staff scrambling as news of the explosion spread.
The president told a confidant after the attack that he wanted to send a warning to Iran not to mess with US assets. Trump said he was also eager to project the global strength and replicate the message he believed he sent last year after passing the raid to kill the leader of the Islamic State: the United States would find its enemies anywhere in the world.
Still, administration officials acknowledged that the murder of Soleimani carried a high risk of Iranian reprisals. The Pentagon is sending about 3,000 more Army troops to the Middle East and some troops are waiting to travel to Beirut if more security is needed at the US embassy there.
Hundreds of soldiers deployed on Saturday from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Kuwait. A loading ramp was full of combat equipment and restless soldiers. Some tried to take a last-minute nap on wooden benches. The wife of a member of the 82nd Airborne Division that was deployed earlier last week said his departure was so abrupt that he did not have the opportunity to say goodbye in person or by phone. `` The children kept saying: 'When is Dad going to be home?' '' Said April Shumard, 42. `` It literally took my breath away. And him too. He still doesn't believe where he went. Our heads are turned. ''
When Trump addressed the nation on Friday for the first time after the murder of Soleimani, he declared that the `` reign of terror of the Iranian general was over. ''
`` Last night we took measures to stop a war. We don't take measures to start a war, '' he said.