White House

With Iran reversal, did Trump break pledge to never ‘telegraph’ military ops?

‘He basically called them up and told them what he was going to do,’ military expert says

Navy Lt. Rob Morris watches as an F/A-18F Super Hornet lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea on May 30. The Lincoln strike group is in the Middle East amid tensions with Iran. (Photo by Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Amber Smalley)

Iran’s military got a glimpse of how President Donald Trump would attack their country despite his years-old pledge never to “telegraph” U.S. military operations to an enemy.

My administration will not telegraph exact military plans to the enemy,” then-candidate Donald Trump said on Aug. 15, 2016 — less than three months before he was elected president.

“I have often said that Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur and Gen. [George] Patton would be in a state of shock if they were alive today to see the way President Obama and [former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton try to recklessly announce their every move before it happens – like they did in Iraq – so that the enemy can prepare and adapt,” Trump said in 2016.

As President Trump a year later, he repeated his mantra when laying out his strategy for the conflict in Afghanistan.

“I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military options. We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” he said. “Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

[Trump says he aborted strike against Iran because it wouldn’t have been ‘proportionate’]

Yet, by moving U.S. Navy ships Thursday into combat positions and launching American military aircraft and then declaring on Twitter Friday he had called off missile launches just 10 minutes before they were scheduled, Trump showed the posture the military takes when when it is about to strike.

Though he did not give away the timing of planned strikes during public comments, Iranian leaders could have gleaned intelligence about U.S. ship and aircraft tactics and their capabilities before Trump issued the cancel order.

“He basically called them up and told them what he was going to do,” said Daniel Davis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities think tank.

A White House official disagreed, arguing Trump had not telegraphed anything. This official, granted anonymity to be candid, described the president’s previous comments as critical of Obama and his subordinates often giving detailed speeches about their military plans.

“I don’t think that the president did show any cards,” the White House official said. “Telegraphing would have been saying yesterday, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do and here’s when I’m going to do it.’”

A Republican source with ties to the West Wing said Friday that officials have signaled that there will be no shooting conflict with Iran, adding Trump’s Thursday night theatrics were just that — an effort to compel Iranian leaders to the negotiating table. The U.S. leader has said for months he wants to strike a new deal that covers the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions and its other activities in the region, which the White House calls destabilizing.

In the modern era of high-tech combat systems, countries are constantly attempting to better understand how adversaries’ aircraft, missiles, ships, submarines and drones — and their many subsystems — might perform in real combat situations.

Multiple major media outlets reported U.S. jets were in the air, awaiting final orders to fire on their assigned targets. Trump, however, disputed that in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd set to air in full on Sunday morning’s edition of “Meet the Press,” saying U.S. jets were “about ready to go.”

But he did not dispute that U.S. Navy ships were moved into position, and supporting aircraft were already operating in a manner to support the strike aircraft.

“I’m sure they did,” Davis said when asked if his experience suggests Iranian intelligence officials gathered data about U.S. forces that their analysts are closely studying.

But, he added, “tactically, I doubt we gave up too much.”

[White House threatens to veto resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales]

“They can know we’re coming — and how — and still not be able to stop us,” Davis said. “The trouble with what the president did is what if something had gone wrong, or the Iranians had been able to sink one of our ships or knock down one of our planes?

“Iran has said they will go straight to all-out war. The problem right now is we don’t have the supporting forces, or the ammunition reserves, or all of the other things we would need to be positioned in the region to deal with a full-scale Iranian response,” he added.

Democratic lawmakers who were among the congressional leaders and committee heads from both parties briefed by administration and Pentagon officials Thursday signaled the White House gave them no indication an operation was imminent.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said afterward that during that Situation Room session he stressed the importance of being careful with any response to the drone shootdown.

“Yesterday, I made the point twice in the meeting that we have to be very cautious because we could be entering into an escalatory situation, and I think that logic ultimately had some effect on the decision,” Reed told CQ Roll Call Friday morning.

“I think when you look at the — as the president apparently did — the casualties that would have been produced by the attack versus, you know, no casualties [in the drone takedown], although we lost the drone, I think he made a calculation that that would not seem to be proportional and would have caused difficulties not just with the Iranians but with … our allies.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also attended the White House session, during which Democrats’ calls for the administration to get congressional approval before even moving as close to strikes as it did Thursday night were ignored — until Trump canceled the operation.

“We must calibrate a response that de-escalates and advances American interests, and we must be clear as to what those interests are,” Pelosi said in a Friday statement. “During our meeting with the President at the White House, Congressional Leaders stressed the necessity that we work with our allies and not strengthen the hand of Iran's hardliners.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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