A swirl of confusing leaks from the White House about President Trump’s contentious interactions with the leaders of some of the country’s closest allies, and accusations by anonymous sources in the military that a fatal raid in Yemen was undertaken without adequate preparation are all contributing to a growing sense of chaos inside a Trump administration that hasn’t yet reached the two-week mark in its four-year term.
Compounding the tension in Washington was the administration’s vague threat of impending action against Iran over that country’s recent test of a ballistic missile and the actions of rebels it is supporting in Yemen.
On Wednesday night, the Washington Post revealed that Trump had an extremely contentious call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last weekend, in which the president -- in between boasts about his election victory -- berated Turnbull over an agreement the Obama administration reached with Canberra to accept 1,250 refugees currently detained offshore by Australian authorities.
Reporting byThe Washington Post and Australian news outlets described a tense and at times angry conversation that Trump told Turnbull was “the worst call by far” he has had with a foreign leader.
Trump appeared to confirm that he was upset with the deal late Wednesday night, tweeting out, “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”
The reported call has caused political havoc for Turnbull in Australia, a country that has long been one of the United States’ closest and most reliable allies.
Conflicting reports also arose late Wednesday about Trump’s conversation with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto over the weekend. The Associated Press initially reported that it had been provided a transcript of part of the conversation in which Trump took the Mexican president to task for not addressing drug violence strongly enough in his country.
“You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,” Trump allegedly said. “You aren't doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn't, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
The story immediately blew up on social media, because it gave the impression that Trump had, in effect, threatened to invade the United States’ southern neighbor and third largest trading partner.
A few hours later, CNN offered a different version of the story, reporting that what the AP reviewed had apparently been part of a White House staff-written “readout” of the conversation. The real transcript, part of which the network said it was provided, showed that Trump had not threatened to send US troops into Mexico, but had offered Pena Nieto military assistance if he needed it.
According to CNN, the transcript has Trump saying, “You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with. We are willing to help with that big-league, but they have to be knocked out and you have not done a good job knocking them out.”
This is, to put it plainly, bizarre. “Readouts” of presidential conversations with world leaders are sanitized summaries of calls, in which a shouting match is reduced to a “frank exchange of ideas” and an outright threat becomes one of “various options” that were discussed. What they never do is try to escalate an already tense situation.
Why a readout that so grossly misrepresented the president’s words would have been created in the first place is mysterious. That it would have been leaked to the press is closer to incomprehensible.
As if reports of Trump treating leaders of the country’s closest allies like hotel suppliers who displeased him weren’t alarming enough, Reuters early Thursday reported that senior military officials are claiming that a disastrous raid in Yemen last week that killed a Navy SEAL, wounded several other Americans, and took the lives of an unknown number of civilians was approved without sufficient planning.
According to the news agency: “U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations. As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.”
These claims raise a number of troubling questions, chief among them being why military officials would even ask permission to undertake an operation that they saw as ill-conceived in the first place. It suggests that either the Trump administration was pressuring the Pentagon into taking actions it wasn’t prepared for, or that military officials are throwing the White House under the bus for a botched operation they don’t want to take the blame for. Neither is a particularly encouraging scenario.
All this came after a day in which Trump’s controversial National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, made an unannounced appearance in the White House briefing room Wednesday afternoon to tell reporters that the administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” over what he described as violations of a United Nations resolution affirming a deal to shut down its nuclear program and attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen who receive backing from Tehran.
However, Flynn abruptly left the podium before elaborating on what it meant to put Iran “officially on notice” leaving it to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who said only that the US would not “sit by and not act on those actions.”
By the end of the day, there had still been no clarification of what, if any, steps the administration is considering.
Nevertheless, the administration sent out its surrogates to insist that the move had been a success.
Sebastian Gorka, an assistant to the president, appeared on Fox News channel’s Sean Hannity program to claim that the vague threat was actually “deadly clear.”
“We don’t have a national security team made up of 28-year-old grad school students who have degrees in fictional writing. We have a very serious national security team,” Gorka said, apparently in reference to one of former president Obama’s close advisers. “We sent a very clear message. We recognize that Iran is not just another country. It's not Belgium, it's not Trinidad and Tobago. It is a state sponsor of terrorism that is destabilizing the region. We have to send a message, and I think the message was sent.”
Trump himself addressed the issue early Thursday morning in a pair of tweets, writing, “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them! Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the U.S. came along and gave it a lifeline in the form of the Iran Deal: $150 billion.”
But he also offered no clear indication of what actions the White House is planning to take.