Would Trump start a war to save his presidency?

Donald Trump’s saber-rattling against Iran over that fire at sea of two oil tankers has raised fears of a miscalculation that could lead to war. With all the latest polling numbers suggesting his reelection next year could be in jeopardy, would he start one to salvage his political skin?

Under normal circumstances and a normal presidency, the answer from most Americans probably would be a resounding no. But we don’t have a normal chief executive in the Oval Office. We have a serial narcissist who on numerous occasions has demonstrated his willingness to do or say anything to maintain his political power.

The decision announced Monday by Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to send thousand more American military forces to the Middle East “for defensive purposes to address air, naval and ground-based threats” has fanned the concern.

Shanahan has since resigned, and subsequently the U.S. has accused Iran of downing an American drone without provocation.

The president has said he is ready to exercise “a full range of options” beyond sanctions already in place to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power in the region, after abandoning the deal the Obama administration struck with Tehran.

The modest U.S. military buildup comes at a time Trump has been bombarded with press reports and leaks of polls from private political camps that hint he could lose election next year to several prospective Democratic presidential candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump characteristically has lashed out at all of them, and particularly Biden, with personal slanders and nicknames. But threatening war to bolster his chances of a second presidential term could be going a bridge too far for voters of all stripes next year.

The last American president to take this country to a shooting war was Republican George W. Bush in 2003. He invaded the Iraqi regime of dictator Saddam Hussein on grounds he had weapons of mass destruction aimed at the Western alliance, which turned out not to exist.

Bush was hailed as a hero at the time, declaring “Mission Accomplished.” But when Iraq became a quagmire of unintended consequences, his support eventually dwindled, though he did manage to win a second term, absent major allegations that he had acted to save his own presidency.

Bush contended he believed Saddam Hussein had those WMDs, as they were called, at the time. His secretary of state, former Army Gen. Colin Powell, seemed to so testify in a memorable speech to the United Nations. But Powell later labeled that testimony “a blot on my record” that he said he regretted long afterward.

Trump by contrast has given no indication that he ever doubts his own judgment. To that point, he has repeatedly disregarded the collective findings of his own government’s highest-ranking intelligence officials that Russian authorities systematically meddled in the 2016 election in his favor.

None of this history is evidence that if push came to shove he would use his presidential powers in some way to assure he would remain in office. Yet he has talked, whether in jest or otherwise, that his fervent supporters might want him to continue in the presidency beyond the eight years to which the amended Constitution allows him.

Such conjecture is a measure not only of the narcissism of the man, but also of the state of abnormality in this country wrought by his dysfunction personally as our highest governmental official in perilous times.

We are still a bona fide democratic society in which we almost universally agree that that no man or woman is “above the law.” But we also now know that a president has the capability or power take us to war without Congress’s approval, because it has happened here. Under a man like Donald Trump, could it not happen again?

The last time Congress exercised its sole power in the Constitution to declare war was nearly 78 years ago, against imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. As a people, we must make sure that is the only way it ever does happen again.


Jules Witcover’s latest book is

“The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance

to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.


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