Trump Hits Back After Ally Denounces ‘Weakness’ With Iran

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — President Trump engaged in a long-distance debate over Iran with one of his closest allies on Tuesday as Republicans sought to influence the administration’s response to the attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia over the weekend.

Mr. Trump, who was in California for campaign fund-raising events, lashed out on Twitter at that ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, for calling the president’s approach to Iran too weak. But Mr. Trump declined to be drawn into repeating his more combative threats against Tehran while awaiting a definitive intelligence assessment about responsibility for the attack.

The president was responding to a series of tweets by Mr. Graham, who has long been one of the more hawkish members of the Republican conference. “The measured response by President @realDonaldTrump regarding the shooting down of an American drone was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness,” Mr. Graham wrote.

As his motorcade traveled to Beverly Hills for a fund-raising dinner, Mr. Trump fired back: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!”

The exchange centered on Mr. Trump’s decision in June to call off a planned airstrike against Iranian targets in retaliation for the downing of a surveillance drone. The president aborted the attack with minutes to go, as he put it, citing a reluctance to cause the 150 casualties his advisers told him to expect.

Mr. Graham’s argument is that by blinking, Mr. Trump emboldened Iran to believe it could continue to take provocative actions without fear of penalty. It is an argument that mirrors the views of John R. Bolton, who resigned last week as national security adviser under pressure from Mr. Trump after disagreements over Iran, among other issues.

But while Mr. Trump has mastered the art of bellicose threats, he has at times demonstrated reluctance to use military force even when advised to. He came to office promising to end America’s long-running wars, arguing that they had cost too much in blood and treasure without benefiting the United States. And so he has opted against pulling the trigger against Iran amid a series of provocations, including attacks on tankers.

His public comments on Iran since the attacks on the Saudi facilities have veered from hostile to restrained. At one point, he tweeted that the United States was “locked and loaded” and waiting only for guidance from Saudi Arabia about who and how to hit back. But he has also said he was not in a rush to go to war and was not ready yet to publicly conclude that Iran was behind the attacks.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday on Air Force One as he flew to California, Mr. Trump suggested he would not meet with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during the United Nations General Assembly next week in New York as he had once contemplated, but left open the possibility at a later date.

“I never rule anything out, but I prefer not meeting him” next week, Mr. Trump said.

The divergence between the president and Mr. Graham reflects the larger schism in the Republican Party between interventionist hawks and more isolationist war critics.

That debate has played out most prominently in recent days in a series of sharp barbs between Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming over the president’s efforts to end the war in Afghanistan, including an invitation to Camp David to Taliban leaders that he revoked. As they tore into each other, the two Republicans were each claiming to represent Mr. Trump’s position even as both were essentially trying to influence it. Mr. Paul appealed to Mr. Trump’s disdain for overseas wars, while Ms. Cheney argued that “America First” meant an assertive role in the world.

While once a harsh critic when they competed for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Graham has become one of Mr. Trump’s most outspoken supporters. The header photograph on his Twitter account shows him being acknowledged by the president at one of his “Keep America Great” campaign rallies. But Mr. Graham has used his links to Mr. Trump to stiffen his approach to national security.

He spoke out on Tuesday after Vice President Mike Pence briefed Senate Republicans on the Saudi attacks, a presentation that Mr. Graham said left him no doubt that Iran was the culprit.

“The problems with Iran only get worse over time so it is imperative we take decisive action to deter further aggression by the Ayatollah and his henchman,” Mr. Graham tweeted.

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