It’s a pattern that has emerged throughout Trump’s presidency. On a range of national security matters, he has cast aside the same warnings that gave his predecessors in both parties pause.
At times, he has simply been willing to embrace more risk. In other moments, he has questioned the validity of the warnings altogether, even from experts within his own administration. And he has publicly taken pride in doing so.
When Trump moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a pledge others had made but ultimately backed away from, it was against the advice of aides who argued it would inflame tensions in the Middle East. When he became the first American leader to step foot in North Korea, he disregarded those who said he was giving Pyongyang a symbolic victory without getting anything in return.
Trump’s supporters have embraced his willingness to act where others would not, saying he has brought a businessman's fresh eye to intractable problems. But his high-risk approach has sparked fear in Democrats, as well as some Republicans, who worry that the president is overly focused on short-term wins and blind to the long-term impact of his actions.
“Trump thinks foreign policy is a reality show, and if there aren't devastating consequences the next day, then they won't come,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “They are coming — in some cases, they already have, in others, the situation is getting progressively worse.”
Trump’s willingness to buck conventional thinking has been a defining feature of his political life. As he enters the final year of his first term, aides and allies describe him as increasingly emboldened to act on his instincts. He’s banished the coterie of advisers who viewed themselves as “guardrails” against his impulse. Others, like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have left because they disagreed with Trump’s decision-making.
Trump’s approach to national security has been shaped in part by the response to one of his first major actions: airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons in 2017, a few months after he took office. He relished the fact that both Republicans and Democrats cheered the decision, one that Obama had backed away from.
Obama halted plans for a strike in 2013 in part because he feared it would drag the U.S. into a wider conflict. That didn’t happen after Trump’s targeted strike — though quagmire in Syria remains and the U.S. still has a small troop presence in the country.
The consequences of Trump’s brash foreign policy decisions have indeed been mixed.
His decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem did not, in fact, prompt an uptick in violence in the Middle East. But it also did nothing to help the Trump White House ease mounting tensions with the Palestinians, cratering prospects for progress on a peace deal with the Israelis.
Trump’s decision to embrace direct diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including a meeting at the dividing line between North and South Korea, has resulted in little progress toward dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Negotiations have largely broken down, and Kim said this week that his country would soon unveil a new strategic weapon.
The president also faced fierce backlash from his own party last year when he abruptly announced that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, clearing the way for Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. Trump initially dug in on his decision, but ultimately reversed course.
To the president’s critics, his decision to order a targeted strike against Soleimani may be his riskiest decision yet.
Both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations passed on the prospect of taking out Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force who is accused of helping orchestrate attacks on American troops in Iraq. Even Trump advisers acknowledged the risk of Iranian retaliation, which could pull the U.S. and Tehran into a direct military conflict.
“One of these days, he’s going to blunder himself into a real, full-blown crisis,” Marie Harf, a senior adviser to former Secretary of State John Kerry, said of Trump. “The Soleimani assassination may be the reckless move by Trump that sends us into full-scale conflict.”
But to Trump backers, it’s just another hyperbolic response to a warranted action by the president.
Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse criticized those who he said were treating Soleimani’s killing like it “was the end of the world.” Sasse said that while he and Trump don’t always see eye-to-eye on policy issues, the president was right to take this step.
“The fact of the matter is, Iran in general and Soleimani in particular had been ramping up attacks,” Sasse said. “There had to be a red line around the loss of American life.”