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Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he’d accidentally start war: report

By August 7, 2020News, Print

As published by The Hill by Justine Coleman

President Trump‘s advisers were wary to talk to him about military options over fears he’d accidentally start a war, CNN’s Jim Sciutto reportedThursday.

Sciutto, CNN’s chief national security correspondent, said multiple former administration officials told him that as tensions rose with North Korea and Iran, Trump’s advisers told foreign officials that they did not know what the president would choose to do next. 

These interviews are highlighted in his book “The Madman Theory: Trump Takes on the World,” which is set to be published Aug. 11.

Senior members of the administration were concerned after Trump called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “little rocket man” in 2017, and Kim responded by calling Trump a “dotard.” They had feared the name-calling would evolve into the president ordering military action against North Korea, CNN reported. 

Joseph Yun, who served as Trump’s special representative for North Korea policy until 2018, said military advisers were reluctant to give the president all of the options out of fear he would order an attack. He said the White House was frustrated with the limited options, but the Department of Defense under former Secretary James Mattis stood its ground.

“We used to only think of Kim Jong Un as unpredictable. Now we had Trump as unpredictable,” Yun told Sciutto. “And I would communicate that.”

A senior White House official told CNN that with North Korea “it was the President who at every turn has encouraged diplomacy over escalation. He took the historic step of meeting with [Kim Jong Un] in person to encourage de-escalation.”

In 2019, senior Pentagon officials told U.S. partners and Iranian leaders that they didn’t know how Trump would respond when the White House was considering action against Iran for attacks in the Persian Gulf.

“It was possible he could make a decision that would lead to an escalation of the conflict, and that escalation could lead to war, so they needed to relay that to Iran so they realized not even his staff knew what would happen if they attacked another oil facility, for instance,” Mick Mulroy, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East until 2019, told CNN.

Before that in September 2019, Pentagon officials told Sciutto they were surprised when Trump requested retaliation through a National Security Council (NSC) official when some mortar shells hit the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, without causing damage or casualties. 

A former U.S. official told CNN that the NSC official called them on a Sunday requesting military options that day.

Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly muted the line during a call with the White House and asked, “‘Is this a joke?’”

“‘He said, ‘Is this a joke? They really want us to propose direct military action into Iran, against Iran, based on this?'” the former official told the network. “And I said, ‘No, we’ve been dealing with this all morning. Have they spent any time in Iraq?’ This is a constant thing.”

Selva, along with Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, who was also on the call, reportedly directed staff not to give the White House military options unless asked directly, and the calls for retaliation at the time “died after that,” the official said.

The president did instruct a military attack that killed most senior Gen. Qassem Soleimani earlier this year, which Iran responded to by launching a strike against a U.S. base in Iraq, injuring several. 

Senior officials were worried if the U.S. attacked within Iran, war would break out.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.