WASHINGTON – On Thursday afternoon, hours before the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, President Donald Trump’s “war chest” dominated the headlines on American media.
Very few people in Washington knew at the time the United States was about to conduct a dramatic military operation in Iraq, which would potentially thrust tensions with Tehran onto a new realm. The “war” referred to had to do with something entirely different: the financial state of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
Trump’s campaign announced it had raised $46 million in the last three months of 2019, and it now has a total of $100 million for the upcoming election. This could give Trump a significant advantage over his Democratic rival, who would still have to win a tough – and costly – party primary.
But now, Trump’s “war chest” could get a whole new meaning. If the United States finds itself in war with Iran, it could have massive implications on the 2020 election. How will voters react if Trump, who promised in his 2016 campaign to end “stupid wars” in the Middle East, instead leads the U.S. into a new one?
The president, however, is not the only one managing a political risk at home over heightened tensions in the region. Democratic candidates, on the one hand, need the support of the party’s left-wing constituency that strongly opposes Trump’s foreign policy and wants to see a Democrat who can “fight back” against the president, in order to secure the nomination. On the other hand, statements that could help them win more votes in the primary could later hurt them in a general election against Trump, where moderate voters could play a decisive role, particularly in swing states.
Statements released by Democratic presidential contenders after the American attack reflect this delicate balance, with many of them blasting Trump for what they say was far from a carefully calculated move while offering harsh words on Soleimani, Tehran’s most prominent military commander and the architect of its growing influence in the Middle East.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading in most polls of Democratic voters and also seen beating Trump in more polls than any other candidate, offered criticism of the Trump administration’s “hugely escalatory move,” but also stressed that “no American will mourn” Soleimani’s death.
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The Iranian commander “deserved to be brought to justice for his crimes against American troops and thousands of innocents throughout the region,” Biden went on to say. “He supported terror and sowed chaos.”
“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox and he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy and plan to keep our troops safe,” Biden added. “This administration has not demonstrated at any turn the discipline or long-term vision necessary – and the stakes could not be higher.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren received some criticism from the left for saying in her initial statement that “Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans.” On Friday, she released a revised statement, this time focusing exclusively on Trump’s “reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict. Our priority must be to avoid another costly war.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, who is competing with Warren for the support of more left-leaning voters in the primary, has taken a similar approach, saying that “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars. Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one.”
The Democratic contenders are set to face voters for the first time in a month, when Iowa kicks off the state-by-state nominating battle on February 3.
Public opinion polls show Americans in general are opposed to U.S. military interventions overseas. A survey last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found only 27 percent of Americans believe military interventions make the United States safer, and nearly half said they make the country less safe.
Democratic lawmakers up for re-election in 2020 in competitive states and districts took an approach closer to Biden’s than to that of Warren or Sanders. Rep. Elissa Slotkin from Michigan, which Trump won in 2016, called on the administration to brief Congress on its actions.
“Congress has a deep interest in the future of our relationship with Iraq, given our investment of blood and treasure there to rid the region of ISIS,” Slotkin, a former intelligence analyst for the CIA, said on Twitter. “Congress needs to understand the administration’s plan as soon as possible.”
Republican Senator Rand Paul, known for his isolationist foreign policy views and his opposition to U.S. military intervention abroad, also called for congressional involvement, singling himself out of the vast majority of Republican elected officials, who expressed support for Trump’s decision.
While Soleimani was “an evil man,” Paul said, the removal of another – Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – by the United States led to terrible consequences.
Paul, a strong supporter of Trump, cautioned against a large-scale war that would “endanger the lives of every American soldier or diplomat in the Middle East,” and stressed: “A war without a congressional declaration is a recipe for feckless intermittent eruptions of violence with no clear mission for our soldiers. Our young men and women in the armed services deserve better.”
The Kentucky senator, who emerged last year as a foreign policy adviser to the president, was one of the people who helped convince him not to retaliate when Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June over the Strait of Hormuz.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has also influenced Trump’s thinking in the fallout of that incident, warning that war with Iran could cost the president his second term.
At the start of this election year, Soleimani’s killing suggests Trump has chosen the side the Republican hawks, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, whereas the Democratic party line awaits the voters’ decision on a presidential nominee.
Reuters contributed to this report.