WASHINGTON — To President Trump, the question of culpability in the explosions that crippled two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman is no question at all. “It’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it,” he declared on Friday.
The question is whether the writing is clear to everyone else. For any president, accusing another country of an act of war presents an enormous challenge to overcome skepticism at home and abroad. But for a president known for falsehoods and crisis-churning bombast, the test of credibility appears far more daunting.
For two and a half years in office, Mr. Trump has spun out so many misleading or untrue statements about himself, his enemies, his policies, his politics, his family, his personal story, his finances and his interactions with staff that even his own former communications director once said “he’s a liar” and many Americans long ago concluded that he cannot be trusted.
Fact-checking Mr. Trump is a full-time occupation in Washington, and in no other circumstance is faith in a president’s word as vital as in matters of war and peace. The public grew cynical about presidents and intelligence after George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on false accusations of weapons of mass destruction, and the doubt spilled over to Barack Obama when he accused Syria of gassing its own people. As Mr. Trump confronts Iran, he carries the burden of their history and his own.
“The problem is twofold for them,” said John E. McLaughlin, a deputy C.I.A. director during the Iraq war. “One is people will always rightly question intelligence because it’s not an exact science. But the most important problem for them is their own credibility and contradictions.”
The task is all the more formidable for Mr. Trump, who himself has assailed the reliability of America’s intelligence agencies and even the intelligence chiefs he appointed, suggesting they could not be believed when their conclusions have not fit his worldview.
At one point shortly before taking the oath of office, he compared intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany and ever since has cast doubt on their findings about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. This year, he repudiated his intelligence chiefs for their assessments of issues like Iran, declaring that “they are wrong” and “should go back to school.” And just this week, he rebuked the C.I.A. for using a brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as an informant, saying, “I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices.”
All of that can raise questions when international tension flares up, like the explosion of the two oil tankers on Thursday, a provocation that fueled anxiety about the world’s most important oil shipping route and the prospect of escalation into military conflict. When Mr. Trump told Fox News on Friday that “Iran did do it,” he was asking his country to accept his word.
“Trump’s credibility is about as solid as a snake oil salesman,” said Jen Psaki, who was the White House communications director and top State Department spokeswoman under Mr. Obama. “That may work for selling his particular brand to his political base, but during serious times, it leaves him without a wealth of good will and trust from the public that what he is saying is true even on an issue as serious as Iran’s complicity in the tanker explosions.”
White House officials declined to discuss the president’s credibility on the record on Friday, but a senior administration official who asked not to be identified said Mr. Trump was not hyping a threat to justify a war. If anything, Mr. Trump has made clear since becoming a presidential candidate that he did not favor the sort of military interventionism that characterized Mr. Bush’s presidency and, to a lesser extent, even Mr. Obama’s at times.
Indeed, in his telephone interview on Friday with Fox News, Mr. Trump offered a measured response, avoiding any kinds of threats or discussion of military action. While he condemned the Iranians, he has pointedly not publicly floated the possibility of retaliation, and, in fact, he once again said he was open to talks with Tehran. “I’m ready when they are,” he said.
Still, Mr. Trump’s strained relationship with the truth has been a defining feature of his presidency. As of June 7, The Washington Post’s fact-checker had counted 10,796 false or misleading claims since he took office.
The president dismisses that as so much “fake news” by journalists who are “enemies of the people.” Just this week, he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News that he was the truthteller, not reporters. “I like the truth,” Mr. Trump said. “You know, I’m actually a very honest guy.”
But it has taken a toll on his credibility with the public. A Quinnipiac University poll last month found that only 35 percent of Americans trust Mr. Trump to tell the truth about important issues versus 52 percent who trusted the news media more.
When it came to this week’s oil tanker explosions, Mr. Trump at first left it to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to point the finger at Iran and he followed up a day later. To bolster the case, the United States military released video footage that American officers said showed an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps patrol boat pulling alongside one of the stricken ships several hours after the first explosion and removing an unexploded limpet mine in broad daylight. That mine is what Mr. Trump said had “Iran written all over it.”
Iran has denied responsibility and suggested that the episode was a “false flag” operation by the United States to frame it and justify aggression. But Iran has its own credibility issues, and even Mr. Trump’s critics were generally not rushing to accept Tehran’s word.
“Look, it could very well have been the Iranians,” said Trita Parsi, a scholar at Georgetown University and the founder of the National Iranian American Council. “I don’t think anyone can say they’re innocent.”
But Mr. Trump’s “relationship with the truth” is so suspect, he said, it argues for stepping back and not drawing conclusions until there is more evidence. “With this president, with the country already so divided, even those who support him may not be totally confident that everything he’s saying is truthful,” said Mr. Parsi, the author of “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.”
Even supporters of Mr. Trump’s tougher approach to Iran acknowledge the credibility challenge. Mark Wallace, the executive director of United Against Nuclear Iran and a strong critic of Mr. Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran that Mr. Trump has since renounced, said the government needs to rely on its career professionals to inform the public about Tehran’s activities.
“The one way of doing that is place the burden of persuasion and validating the facts on the military and intelligence community that at least is more immune to the politically charged atmosphere that we live in,” said Mr. Wallace, who was a diplomat at the United Nations under Mr. Bush. “With Iran, I’ve been surprised actually that it’s been relatively depoliticized.”
Much of the distrust traces back to Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that he and intelligence agencies assured the public were there. Mr. McLaughlin acknowledged the damage that did to the public standing of the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies.
But he said the intelligence community has reformed itself since then. “There really has been an enormous effort to take stock of that and use that,” he said. “And intelligence has been right about an awful lot since then.”
“The problem with intelligence is it’s always contentious, it’s always arguable,” Mr. McLaughlin added. “But at some point you have to settle on a bottom line and he often doesn’t believe in a bottom line on intelligence. So how do you believe what he says?”
As he reflected on the moment, he added, “It’s a pretty dangerous situation I think.”
Follow Peter Baker on Twitter: @peterbakernyt.
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