WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump claims he prevented the deaths of 150 Iranians Thursday night ― but his account raises questions about why he only learned how many people would die in his planned missile strike minutes before it was to happen.
Sources familiar with the National Security Council decision-making process say the number of people likely to be killed and injured in a U.S. military action is one of the first pieces of information a president receives in the planning process.
“Under ‘regular order’ in the NSC process, yes, but we don’t have regular order so perhaps not,” said a former NSC staff member who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents.
Among the information a president would receive from intelligence agencies and Department of Defense officials:
- Estimate of military members and civilians killed and injured at the target sites;
- Estimate of potential U.S. service members killed and injured during the operation;
- Potential threats to U.S. military, diplomatic and civilian targets in retaliation actions by the targeted country.
Colin Kahl, who served as national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, laid out the presentation a president would normally receive.
“Look Mr. President, these are the targets we plan to hit, this is how we plan to go after it, these are the forces we have in play, this is the time of day we’re going to do it, this is what we anticipate the damage to be, the number of casualties, we’re going to do it at night so that we kill fewer people, we’re going to make sure it’s military focused,” Kahl said. “That will all be there, right in the targeting package that they put right in front of the president.”
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General,” Trump wrote. “10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
In an interview with NBC News shortly afterward, Trump elaborated.
“I said, How many people are going to be killed?” Trump told NBC News, before speaking in the voice of a military officer. “‘Uh, sir, I’d like to get back to you on that.’ Great people, these generals. They said, uh, they came back and said, ‘Sir, approximately 150.’ And I thought about it for a second and I said, you know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it, and here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was proportionate.”
Neither the tweets nor the television interview, however, offer any insight into why Trump claims he did not find out about the casualty estimate until just minutes before the strike was to commence.
The White House did not respond to questions from HuffPost on that point.
One senior administration official, on condition of anonymity, instead answered: “There was complete unanimity amongst the president’s advisers and DoD leadership on an appropriate response to Iran’s activities. The president made the final decision.” The official did not respond to follow-ups on the original question.
Trump is known for his lack of interest in details and his habit of letting his attention wander during briefings, making it entirely possible that his NSC presented an expected estimate of deaths and injuries well in advance of Trump’s decision to approve the strike and that he simply ignored it or forgot it.
However, Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and the NSC spokesman under former President Barack Obama, said Trump really might not have received such information if his briefings were conducted by his national security adviser, John Bolton, who has viewed Iran as an implacable enemy for decades.
“We’re seeing the danger of this dynamic potentially come to life,” Price said. “Trump is receiving filtered information from perhaps the most hawkish voice in the administration, and Bolton may well be omitting details that are entirely fundamental to the cost-benefit analysis.”
Kahl, though, said Trump’s version of the story is highly suspect to begin with, simply because of who Trump is.
“Can any of us take at face value Trump’s portrayal of events?” he asked. “We don’t even know what the real story is. We have a president who basically runs the same play over and over again, which is: He lights everything on fire and then he pretends to put the fire out and take credit for it.”
“But we have no idea whether he actually authorized the strike, or if he did, why he pulled it back,” Kahl added. “Maybe he saw something on Fox News that changed his mind. Maybe Tucker Carlson gave him a call. All of these things sound ridiculous, except in the Trump administration they would all be completely plausible explanations for why the president has zigged and he’s zagged.”
Travis Waldron contributed to this report.