Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – When Trump murdered several people by drone at Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020, including Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian government vowed that it would get revenge on him someday. It was a hollow threat. Iran’s rulers know better than to provoke the U.S. at that level.
Ironically enough, however, Iran may have brought Trump down, but indirectly and because of Trump’s own narcissism and big mouth.
So the story begins in November 2020 as Trump was throwing ideas about how he could stay in office against the White House walls and seeing if any would stick. The most consequential of these hare-brained schemes turned into the January 6 Capitol insurrection, major plotters of and participants in which have now been sentenced to hefty jail sentences for seditious conspiracy.
That fall, however, it wasn’t clear what in Sam Hill Trump might get up to in order to stay in office. One possibility was that he would attempt to order the army into the streets of America. Another possibility that occurred to analysts was that he might try to wag the dog. That is, he might provoke a shooting war with some country in order to declare martial law and try to suspend the constitution.
According to Susan B. Glasser at the New Yorker, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley was keenly aware that Trump was just bonkers enough to try out such a desperate plan. Moreover, it seemed likely to him that if Trump did wag the dog it would be with an attack on Iran. Milley privately believed that under Trump the US had come uncomfortably close to getting into a hot war with Tehran.
Glasser wrote, “This dangerous post-election period, Milley said, was all because of Trump’s ‘Hitler’-like embrace of the ‘Big Lie’ that the election had been stolen from him; Milley feared it was Trump’s ‘Reichstag moment,’ in which, like Adolf Hitler in 1933, he would manufacture a crisis in order to swoop in and rescue the nation from it.”
Milley was determined that no such event take place and warned the other joint chiefs and the officer corps generally not to accept any illegal orders from Trump.
This caution recalls the steps Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger took when Tricky Dick Nixon was in the midst of the Watergate burglary scandal. Schlesinger also told the military to come to him first if Nixon tried to order something outrageous.
Glasser’s article about Milley’s brave fight to “land the plane with the engines out”– that is, to contain Trump and get the country through the inauguration of Joe Biden — came out on July 15, 2021. Trump had been out of office for nearly half a year. He was still licking his wounds and still as sensitive as a turtle that had lost its shell to any stain on the escutcheon of his presidency.
Katelyn Polantz, Paula Reid and Kaitlan Collins at CNN report that soon after Glasser’s article appeared, Trump met with some former aides and with staffers helping former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows write his autobiography. The meeting was in Bedminster, New Jersey, at Trump’s golf club there. Trump was furious about the depiction of Milley as the adult in the room, restraining Trump from doing something crazy to Iran, and said so.
Hugo Lowell at the Guardian says that former communications official in the Trump White House Margo Martin was there, and in connection with Meadows’ book she tape recorded conversations to make sure they were accurately reported.
So Trump’s umbrage about the Glasser article and her characterization of Milley got caught on tape. That wouldn’t be remarkable except for the substance of Trump’s remarks.
You see, he had stolen a Pentagon document, classified “Secret,” outlining a plan for militarily attacking Iran and he had taken it home with him to Mar-a-Lago. The Guardian‘s Lowell said it had been authored by General Joseph F. Dunford, who served as the 19th chairman of the joint chiefs of staff from Oct. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2019.
I doubt that the war plans for Iran were more than a routine contingency, which is why the document is “Secret” rather than “Top Secret.” The Pentagon apparently has blueprints in its archives for an attack on virtually all of the 194 other countries in the world. Inside the Beltway, the attitude is apparently that you never know.
Trump, typically befuddled, misremembered the document as having been authored by Milley. Trump’s incorrect impression that the plan was Milley’s led Meadows to write in his memoir that Milley on several occasions urged war on Iran, which is certainly incorrect.
So Trump told the authors and staffers gathered at the Bedminister golf club that he had this classified document that would disprove Milley’s statements to Glasser. He said, however, that since it was classified, he couldn’t go into the details.
According to persons who have heard the tape and who talked to CNN and The Guardian, Trump said he wished he could release the Pentagon document, but it was classified, so he couldn’t. He said he wished he had declassified it when he was still president, since he no longer was in a position to do so
The CNN reporters say that Trump may have had the document with him and may have been waving it around as he spoke, since there is the sound on the tape of rustling papers.
The taped conversation emerged when Margo Martin testified to Special Counsel Jack Smith’s inquiry in March.
Trump’s remarks on the tape create extreme legal jeopardy for him, since they reveal that he was aware that he possessed classified documents, and that he was not actually able any longer to declassify them. Moreover, the “Secret” classification is a sweet spot for espionage prosecutions, Lowell points out, since a mere “Confidential” classification is considered too trivial to bring charges over, while possession of a “Top Secret” document might not be prosecuted for fear that the document itself would be exposed to the light of day.
I think part of Trump’s outrage at the Glasser article derived from the street cred he gained among the MAGA cult that he brought the troops home and ended the wasteful “War on Terror” in the Middle East, stopping the hemorrhaging of blood and treasure abroad for the sake of prosperity at home. Remember, he was the first Republican to run against Bush’s Iraq War. So the implication that he was himself a potential warmonger was a black mark on his brand. He wanted to remove it, and to point the finger at the Pentagon instead.
So, if Smith does charge Trump over stealing this Pentagon document, in a way Iran will have its revenge. It will have been the Iran issue that brought Trump down.