WASHINGTON — He heard from his generals and his diplomats. Lawmakers weighed in and so did his advisers. But among the voices ringing in President Trump’s head was that of one of his favorite Fox News hosts: Tucker Carlson.
While the president’s national security advisers were urging him to order a military strike against Iran in retaliation for shooting down an unmanned drone, Mr. Carlson in recent days had told Mr. Trump that responding to Tehran’s provocations with force was crazy. The hawks did not have Mr. Trump’s best interests at heart, he said. And if he got into a war with Iran, he could kiss goodbye to getting re-elected.
However much weight that advice may or may not have had, the sentiments certainly reinforced the doubts that Mr. Trump himself harbored as he navigated his way through one of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of his presidency. By his own account, the president called off the “cocked & loaded” strike on Thursday night with only 10 minutes to spare to avoid the deaths of 150 people.
The concerns that Mr. Trump heard from Mr. Carlson reflected that part of the presidential id that has always hesitated at pulling the trigger. Belligerent and confrontational as he is in his public persona, Mr. Trump has at times pulled back from the use of force, convinced that America has wasted too many lives and too much money in pointless Middle East wars and wary of repeating what he considers the mistakes of his predecessors.
As Mr. Carlson and other skeptics have argued, a strike against Iran could easily spiral into a full-fledged war without easy victory. That, Mr. Trump was told, was everything he ran against. And so the president struggled into the early evening, committed to taking action to demonstrate resolve right up until the moment he decided against it and called off the warplanes and missile launchers.
“To those who want to criticize the president, I would say they ought to be thankful they’re not the ones having to make that decision,” said Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who was among the lawmakers at the White House that day. “I watched him really agonize over this.”
The full story of how Mr. Trump set in motion an attack on another country and then canceled it remained to some extent shrouded in mystery even to some of those involved, according to interviews with administration officials, military officers and lawmakers, many of whom asked not to be named. On the day after the aborted strike, multiple, seemingly conflicting accounts emerged and the White House made no effort to reconcile them, choosing to stay silent about the deliberations. A spokeswoman for Fox News declined to comment.
One thing made clear yet again, however, was just how different Mr. Trump’s decision-making process is from those of other presidents, even on the weightiest of issues to confront a commander in chief.
Meetings and memos aside, he trusts his instincts more than institutions, reaches out to unconventional sources of guidance and is willing to defy a roomful of advisers. He has not had a Senate-confirmed defense secretary for nearly six months, and the acting secretary resigned this week.
Mr. Trump had been resisting a military response to repeated provocations by Iran for weeks by the time he woke up on Thursday morning to discover that an American spy plane had been shot down. Now led by John R. Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, the president was faced with the choice of how to respond.
Early in the morning, Mr. Bolton met with Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, who had announced his resignation just three days earlier and was at the White House for a previously scheduled meeting. Mr. Bolton asked him what should happen next on Iran.
At 11 a.m., Mr. Shanahan returned to the White House to meet with the president, this time accompanied by Mark T. Esper, the Army secretary designated to replace him as acting Pentagon chief, and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By the end of the meeting, Mr. Trump was still considering what to do.
Among those Mr. Trump talked with in the morning was Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and increasingly one of the president’s closest allies. Mr. Graham urged that he consider a military response to the drone’s shooting down.
At 3 p.m., Mr. Trump hosted congressional leaders in the Situation Room to discuss the episode and his options for a response. At least some of those in the room left assuming that he was likely to order a strike.
Mr. Trump was given a list of at least a dozen strike options generated this month after there were attacks on tankers in the region. The list was then narrowed down to at least two alternatives. Among the targets would be facilities like radar and missile batteries.
Administration officials said on Friday that the president’s national security team was unanimous in favoring a response and all agreed with the final option recommended to Mr. Trump. But several military officials said General Dunford cautioned about the possible repercussions of a strike, warning that it could endanger American forces and allies in the region. A 6 p.m. meeting in Mr. Shanahan’s office including General Dunford was described as particularly tense.
As for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he argued that sanctions were having a powerful effect by slashing Iran’s revenues from oil sales, according to a senior administration official familiar with the discussion. While he expressed support for a pinpoint military response, he stressed that the sanctions were having the long-term effect the administration had hoped.
As of 7 p.m., senior American officials were told the strike was on and would be carried out between 9 and 10, or just before dawn in Iran. Within an hour, it was called off.
On Twitter and in an interview with NBC News, Mr. Trump attributed his change of heart to a desire to avoid casualties.
“I want to know something before you go,” he said he asked his generals. “How many people would be killed, in this case Iranians?”
The generals, he said, replied that approximately 150 people would be killed.
“I thought about it for a second and I said, you know what, they shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it, and here we are sitting with a 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead,” Mr. Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “And I didn’t like it, I didn’t think, I didn’t think it was proportionate.”
That account raised a host of questions. Before any deliberate strike, military lawyers present the commander with a final collateral damage estimate. These numbers are fluid and almost always a rough guess, as it is almost impossible to know who or what will be at the site of attack when it occurs. In this case, officials said, 150 was the worst case while zero was the best case.
Veteran national security officials who were not in the room said it was almost inconceivable that the president would not have been presented with casualty estimates much earlier in the process. Some administration officials said it was possible Mr. Trump was given the information earlier in the day but either did not listen or did not focus on it.
Gen. Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chairman who is close to the Trump White House, said another factor came into play during the deliberations — the president was told that the shoot down was really a mistake.
“The president got some additional information that the Iranian national leaders were frustrated or furious with the tactical commander who made the decision to shoot down the American drone,” General Keane said in an interview. Among those who were said to be angry, he said, was Qassim Suleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.
General Keane said it was unclear whether the commander who ordered the shoot down was operating within his authority to do so or was a rogue figure. But either way, he said, it impressed upon Mr. Trump that he would be risking a dangerous escalation over what was not intended to be an attack by Iran’s top leaders.
“I don’t think that’s what was decisive for the president,” General Keane said, but it contributed to the decision which he said was mainly driven by the casualty concern. “What was decisive for him was the comparison for him, compared to destroying missile batteries and killing people, of shooting down a drone.”
By this point, time was running out. Mr. Graham, who had pushed for a strike, was on an airplane heading to the West Coast and out of touch. Mr. Trump scrubbed the mission.
The decision made, Mr. Trump turned on his television to watch the opening of Mr. Carlson’s 8 p.m. show, where he heard what surely must have sounded like vindication. Onscreen, Mr. Carlson declared that “foreign wars have ended in dismal failure for the United States.”
While no decision had been announced, Mr. Carlson praised Mr. Trump for resisting military intervention in Iran. “The same people who lured us into the Iraq quagmire 16 years ago are demanding a new war, this one with Iran,” he said. “The president, to his great credit, appears to be skeptical of this — very skeptical.”
If he kept the television on, though, Mr. Trump would have heard a radically different message from another friend on Fox at 9 p.m. With the news of Mr. Trump’s decision still not public, Sean Hannity declared that “the president is putting the mullahs of Iran on notice.” While Mr. Trump was “being very patient,” Mr. Hannity said, he may have “no choice” but to “bomb the hell out of them.”
By Friday morning, the news of the president’s canceled raid had broken and the voices on “Fox & Friends” were exasperated.
“What’s it going to take for America to actually act?” asked Brian Kilmeade, one of the president’s favorites. “There are consequences for nonaction and there’s consequences for action. In the Middle East, a nonaction is looked at, in many cases, as weakness.”