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Politics & Government

Trump Tweet Threatens Iran After It Warns Of 'Mother Of All Wars'

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump is threatening Iran after its leader, President Hassan Rouhani, warned in a speech that any U.S. conflict with Iran would be, quote, "the mother of all wars." President Trump's response came late last night on Twitter. He addressed it directly to President Rouhani and he wrote in all caps - and I'm going to quote here - "never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before." I'm joined now by NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

KING: This seems like a very dramatic escalation.

LIASSON: It certainly does. The president went on to say that we are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious. It was as if he was threatening to destroy Iran if they continued to threaten, rhetorically, the United States, which they have done regularly for the last generation. I don't know what he means. Does he mean if people go into the streets and chant death to America that's a threat? It's unclear.

KING: Well, also yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in which he was very critical of Iran and its leaders. He was slightly more - he was more diplomatic. Let's take a listen to his criticism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: The level of corruption wealth among Iranian leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government.

KING: So this is interesting because this is all coming right before the U.S. is about to reimpose sanctions on Iran, right?

LIASSON: Yes. And that's a very serious, real foreign policy move. The sanctions are going to hurt Iran. They're going to be serious, the administration says. And they're also going to include secondary sanctions on European countries that continue to - European companies that continue to do business with Iran. That is going forward. What the president means, to suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before, sounds like he's threatening some kind of military action.

KING: All right. Mara, we are going to come back to you in a couple of minutes if you'll hang on the line. But for someone who may be able to help shed some light on what is going on here, we have Marc Lotter. He's a former special assistant to President Trump and press secretary to Vice President Pence.

Good morning, Mr. Lotter.

MARC LOTTER: Good morning.

KING: So what do you make of these strong words on Twitter by President Trump? Is he trying to undermine or to anger the Iranian government?

LOTTER: I think he's just stating a fact. For too long, we have seen the Iranian regime make bold and baseless attacks against the United States in threats. And this is a president who believes in stating the truth, that there is no question who would win in a battle between - any kind of a battle, economic, military or otherwise - between the United States and Iran.

KING: But why on earth state it in this way - all capital letters on Twitter directly to the president of Iran, making a threat? Does the president want a war with Iran?

LOTTER: No. I think he wants to make sure that Iran knows that they are treading into dangerous territory. And it's also very important that, as we have seen over recent months - and really, over recent years - that the people of Iran are starting to rise up. They are starting to recoil against the Iranian regime, the horrible conditions - economically and otherwise - that they are forced to endure.

This is a very strong signal to the Iranian people that the United States and her allies have your back, that when they make the choice to change leadership to rejoin the world community, they will be welcomed. But right now, we're dealing with a regime and leadership in Iran that is turning its backs on the greater world community. And by threatening America, nothing can be gained from that for the Iranian people. And this is...

KING: Is the president trying to prompt the Iranian people to change their regime? Is this tweet, even though it was addressed to President Rouhani, is it to the Iranian people?

LOTTER: I think it's both. I think it's to the president and I also think it's to the Iranian people. As the president has said many times - as well as the vice president when there have been protests - that we support the move to more democratic norms, more democratic institutions and a stronger economy for Iran. And so this is sending a strong signal to both the Iranian leadership that your baseless rhetoric will not be tolerated and to the Iranian people saying, you don't have to live like this any longer. We are not supporters of the Iranian regime.

KING: I just wonder if there's not a more diplomatic way to do that than a late-night tweet in all caps. But let me ask you. It's not uncommon for Iranian leaders to disparage the U.S. This goes on all the time. Why is President Trump responding to this now? Does it have anything to do with him facing criticism over this meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin?

LOTTER: No. I don't think so.

KING: No?

LOTTER: Absolutely not. The president doesn't view things that way. I think what he's looking at is the fact that you have the Iranian president making direct threats against the United States. And while some - while in the past we've had administrations who would take the diplomatic response, this is a president who believes in speaking the truth to the facts. And in this case, he's speaking up, saying, this is not something we are going to tolerate. And this is also not a path where you can succeed. And we can hide behind the language of diplomacy or we can just confront the truth the way it is. And I think the Iranian people and the Iranian leadership needs to understand that words do - these words are meaningless, and it's not really something that you can succeed in doing.

KING: Do you think the president's advisers are with him in this plan? Like, do you think Defense Secretary Jim Mattis approved this tweet?

LOTTER: I don't think that Secretary Mattis is going to have to approve any kind of tweet from the president of the United States. He is still the president. But again, we're dealing with something that is very different between just sending out a tweet, recognizing a response - whether that's a news release in the old terms or using a tweet in the modern world - and taking direct military action. Those are two different things. And so as we would - if any case we would need to move toward the latter, you would definitely have the secretary of defense involved in that. When we are talking about responding to the news of the day, dealing with the words of the Iranian leadership, then the president's going to make the choice that he makes and he's going to speak forcefully, clearly from the beginning.

KING: I want to ask you quickly. Last week, we saw the president appear to be on a different page from his director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, first, over Russia's interference in U.S. elections. And then Mr. Coats seemed very caught off guard about the president's desire to invite Vladimir Putin to the United States. It is Dan Coats' job to know things. Is this a sign that the president is out of lockstep with another one of his advisers?

LOTTER: No. I don't think so.

KING: No?

LOTTER: And it was even suggested over the weekend that had Director Coats been in Washington, D.C., rather than in Aspen, he would have known that. But this is a question of when the president makes a decision to invite a world leader or to take action in terms of meetings or otherwise with world leaders, he makes that decision. The director of National Intelligence, the National Security Council and others then produce the materials to prepare and back that issue up. It's not something where any president is going to go and ask the director of National Intelligence whether he can have a meeting or not...

KING: Sure. Sure...

LOTTER: ...And so I think...

KING: ...But this divide where the president says one thing and then his top officials seem surprised is not uncommon. Briefly, if you will, does the president trust his advisers?

LOTTER: Absolutely. And he said that over the - he said that last week, even when he was talking about, in response to the Russian meddling in the election, that he supports the intelligence community when it comes to the meddling, although he also reiterates time and time again it did not impact the outcome of the election, and there was no collusion.

KING: All right. Marc Lotter was a special assistant to President Trump. Sir, thank you for your time this morning.

LOTTER: Thank you.

KING: All right. I want to bring back in NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

Mara, what do you make of what we just heard from Mr. Lotter?

LIASSON: Well, I'm still puzzling about the tweet. On the simplest level, Donald Trump likes to direct the media narrative. He likes to control it. And he's gotten us all talking about Iran this morning instead of talking about Putin...

KING: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Or the investigation into Russian interference. So on a simpler level, it could be just that. We also have seen the president use this kind of very harsh rhetoric, threatening to destroy another country before. He did that with North Korea. Sometimes he likes to create a crisis and then become the hero of his own story and declare the crisis over, as he did with North Korea after one meeting with Kim Jong Un, even though not a single nuclear weapon has been taken down in North Korea. So I don't know. Let's see what he follows this up with today.

KING: Do you think, though, that there's a risk to the president tweeting something like this beyond just, OK, it's more rhetoric - like, a risk to how seriously he's been taken by the rest of the world?

LIASSON: Sure. I think there is a boy-who-cried-wolf aspect. If you keep on threatening things and don't follow through with them, then people won't take you seriously or they won't quite know when to take you seriously. But he's the president the United States, has a massive nuclear arsenal and he is now saying that if Iran continues to threaten the United States, whatever that means, they'll suffer the consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. And we're going to be trying to figure out what that means all day today.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "ENDLESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.