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Trump sounds reluctant to attack Iran. But he’s increasingly surrounded by hawks.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/20/2019 Aaron Blake

For the second time this week, President Trump is signaling a not-so-aggressive posture toward Iran’s provocations. A few days ago, Trump called two oil tanker attacks that the U.S. government blames on Iran “very minor.” Then on Thursday, Trump suggested Iran didn’t intentionally shoot down a U.S. drone.

The combined picture is one of a president who has talked tough about Iran for decades now looking to justify avoiding armed conflict.

But the people advising Trump seems to be pushing for the opposite approach, which makes you wonder whether he can hold them off. 

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Much ink has been spilled about just how much national security adviser John Bolton has advocated conflict with Iran. But other influential Republicans around Trump are increasingly pointing toward a confrontation. Trump appears to be an aspiring dove surrounded by hawks.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) this weekend expressly called for a strike, saying, “These unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike.” He repeated the call twice more for emphasis.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also walked up to the line on Thursday, tweeting that Trump need not seek congressional authorization to strike Iran — a position many in Congress disagree with.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, too, seemed to have some choice words for the audience-of-one on Thursday morning. He predicted on Fox Business Network that Iran would begin launching “a series of terrorist bombings” including potentially in the United States.

“I don’t think it’s inconceivable that a couple of more provocations and the U.S. will simply take out the entire Iranian Navy, which we could do probably in three days,” Gingrich said. “I think we’re more likely to do that than we are to back down.”

Perhaps the most telling comments about this, though, came from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Thursday. Among them:

  • “I would encourage forceful action to stop this behavior before it leads to a wider conflict.”
  • “Here’s what Iran needs to get ready for: severe pain. If they are inching for a fight, they are going to get one."
  • "We are a lot closer today than yesterday.”

Graham added that Iran increasing its uranium enrichment, as it recently said it would do, “would be a provocative act toward United States and Israel, and all bets are off.” He also suggested Trump negotiating would only reward the Iranians. “To get Trump back to the negotiating table, they are trying to use hostile acts as the means to do that. If they are successful, that becomes the template."

These lines seemed geared toward Trump, who has been uncharacteristically circumspect following the tanker attacks and the drone incident and suggested Iran would need to pose a nuclear threat to draw out the United States military. Graham, who spoke to Trump on Thursday morning, appears to be leaning on him to act in a way that Trump’s comments suggest he’s not inclined to.

Trump is certainly his own man. But he has also shown a susceptibility to taking the advice of whoever surrounds him when he’s somewhat out of his element. It’s why different factions of the White House have fought so hard for access to him, knowing it could lead to a quick win on their pet policy projects.

Graham might be Trump’s biggest ally in the Senate. Cotton is up there too. Trump is getting an increasingly amount advice to offer some sort of aggressive response — even as he’s signaling he’s not anxious to take it.


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