In Letting Navy Sink Iran Boats, Trump Grabs Illegal War Power

At 5:08 a.m. (EST) on April 22, 2020, President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter: "I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea."

Wags have mocked Trump for wanting to “shoot down” boats, which don’t fly. Infinitely more important is the heightened risk of war with Iran – and thereupon with Russia – if the military carries out Trump’s intent. Consider too his blow to the rule of law by –

  • Treading on Congress’s exclusive authority to declare war (Constitution, Article I, Section 8, eleventh paragraph).
  • Disregarding the United Nations Charter’s ban on the use or threat of force against any nation contrary to the UN’s peaceful purpose (Article II, Paragraph 4).

Despite the coronavirus crisis – or possibly because of it – Trump may have decided to provoke a war with Iran to help his reelection. In 2011 and 2012 he repeatedly accused President Obama of trying to do that.

It would distract attention from allegations of corruption, deception, and bungling of the coronavirus crisis. Trump has role models: President Clinton used acts of war to enhance his own political position and distract from his scandals. George W. Bush was quoted as looking forward to the political benefits he would derive from attacking Iraq.

Trump has been tormenting Iran ever since May 8, 2018, when he announced U.S. withdrawal from the multinational Iran nuclear deal, in effect since 2015. He then reimposed sanctions, which the deal had removed. A US military buildup in the Mideast followed. On January 3, 2020 in Iraq came Trump’s premeditated murder by drone of a high-ranking Iranian military leader, General Qasem Soleimani.

Trump’s tweet, referring to an (imaginary?) instruction to the Navy, came as a surprise to Pentagon officials queried by news reporters. While accepting the tweet itself as sort of an order, they seemed to vary a bit on whether it changed anything.

"The President issued an important warning to the Iranians." That was how Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist interpreted it at a press briefing on the 22nd.

"What he was emphasizing is all of our ships retain the right of self-defense and people need to be very careful in their interactions to understand the inherent right of self-defense."

Someone should have asked Mr. Norquist: Don’t you really mean the inherent right to self-defense of an aggressor? You seem to allow the victim no such right.

The Iranian boats get blasted "if they harass our ships at sea." Just who is harassing whom? Naval officers recently complained that Iranian gunboats were already doing it to US warships by swarming around and approaching too close.

But the warships have traveled some 7,000 miles to the Persian Gulf. It is the Persians’ gulf more than it is the Americans’. Why don’t the news media ask what US warships are doing off Iran if the purpose is defense and not provocation?

Think of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 claim that a US warship in the Gulf of Tonkin was "defending" itself from North Vietnamese "aggression." Johnson et al. had sent forces there for the covert purpose of provoking war. They accomplished that. The so-called attack on the ship was ultimately proven to be a fabrication. The media had never asked what a US warship was doing there in the first place.

Don’t cross this invisible line!

The tweet appeared to spur some action. At the Pentagon briefing, General John Hyten, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military would "apply that clear direction from the commander-in-chief into lawful orders." He added that the President’s message was "crystal clear": There was a line Iran could not cross without provoking a response. But the general failed to make it crystal clear where that line was.

At a State Department press briefing the same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Iranians were "harassing US naval vessels." The President, he said, had been very clear to those in leadership "to take whatever action is necessary to make sure that you can defend and keep our people safe." Trump’s response to harassment by boats is to sink them. Is that the necessary action to take? Nobody asked Pompeo that.

Whatever outrage the Twitter announcement may have aroused in members of Congress got little publicity. Mainstream media did quote one congressional critic, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), a Navy veteran. Her statement: "The president’s continued issuing of orders to our military via tweet is a threat to our national security and, if followed without clear guidance and rules of engagement, will unnecessarily escalate tensions with Iran and possibly lead to all-out conflict."

Despite the coronavirus crisis, which hit Iran hard, Pompeo in March announced more sanctions against the regime. The Trump administration’s policy of "maximum pressure" had already made it extremely difficult for Iran to buy medical supplies and equipment abroad.

Add war, and a myriad of innocents may succumb – in both countries – even if the conflict does not turn into a global conflagration as Russia joins the fray, maybe China too.

What do Trump and his men want from Iran? The bugbear used to be an imaginary Iranian production of nuclear weapons. The Iran deal, which Trump renounced, barred such armament. Evidently Tehran can do nothing to avoid war and escape sanctions – except one thing: Surrender and let the US change the regime again, as it did in 1953. (The CIA then ousted Premier Muhammad Mussadegh, bringing despotism by the Shah, followed by the Islamic revolution.)

Meanwhile, the Trump administration strangles the people of Venezuela with sanctions, telling them that they must replace the leader they elected with the man Trump has chosen – or else.

He suffers no shortage of targets. The US. military is deployed in more than 150 countries. Its prominent actions rage in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

Trump boasted in January 2016, a year before entering the White House, that he could shoot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue without losing voters.

He has not done precisely that, but, like modern-day predecessors of his, he has regarded killing people as part of a president’s job. Few Americans seem to care. Fewer yet lament that tolls of civilian casualties have swelled under Trump’s policy of "bomb the s—- out of them." And he has not yet gone nuclear.

Paul W. Lovinger, journalist, author, and antiwar activist of San Francisco, may be contacted at