The Biggest Scandal in Trump’s Indictment: US War Plans for Iran

Donald Trump’s indictment was the biggest news of the week, but what was lost in the typical Trump absurdities of documents in ballrooms and bathrooms is the revelation of US plans to attack Iran.

Former president Donald Trump at a Georgia state GOP convention at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center on June 10, 2023 in Columbus, Georgia. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

The blockbuster news of the past week was Donald Trump’s latest indictment, this one on more robust ground than his first for the unprecedented act of prosecuting a former president. It’s worth reading the whole indictment, if for no other reason than the high comedy of Trump’s cartoonish levels of lawbreaking and self-incrimination: placing boxes upon boxes of classified documents in his bathroom and on stage in his ballroom in full public view, privately discussing how to lie to and mislead the FBI, and constantly telling visitors how very, very secret his documents are and how he shouldn’t even be showing them to people.

The case has monopolized national attention the past few days, with a broad range of commentators expressing outrage and condemning Trump for potentially compromising US nuclear secrets, weapons capabilities, defensive vulnerabilities, and plans for waging war on Iran.

Wait — war with Iran?

Yes, in a detail that’s been almost entirely glossed over, central to this case are a set of secret government plans for attacking Iran. Other than as a pure factual matter or to stress how recklessly Trump treated classified information, this has been little remarked upon, even as forthright condemnations of wars of aggression and paeans to international law have taken center stage in US political discourse over the past year.

The issue stems from Trump’s apparent frustration with what he claimed was a false narrative being pushed by the press: that after losing the 2020 election, under the advice of then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who was briefly removed from power before returning last November) and the coterie of Iran hawks he’d surrounded himself with, Trump was dangerously close to ordering strikes on Iran that could have triggered full-scale war and had to be talked down from it by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.

According to the indictment, in a recorded interview Trump gave at his New Jersey golf club in July 2021 to a writer and publisher working on an upcoming book, the former president maintained the reality of the situation was the exact opposite: that it was Milley and the Pentagon who were pushing for an attack on Iran on a reluctant Trump and that the classified documents he had kept were proof of this. Specifically, Trump showed them a “pages-long” set of plans for attacking Iran that he said were independently drawn up by the military and presented to him.

“This totally wins my case, you know,” Trump allegedly said, according to the indictment. “Except it is like, highly confidential.” (Hilariously, Trump also went on to say that “as president I could have declassified it” but “now I can’t,” one of many instances in the indictment of Trump effectively doing prosecutors’ job for them).

It’s difficult to know what to believe here. The original New Yorker article, which came out of interviews conducted by author Susan Glasser and her husband, New York Times reporter Peter Baker, points to reporting from the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender and the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig as corroboration, each of whom put out their own books about the final years of Trump’s presidency. But neither of those books features that particular episode.

In fact, while Rucker and Leonnig’s I Alone Can Fix It alleges that Milley told a confidante that he viewed preventing war with Iran before the 2021 inauguration as one of his “missions,” it also depicts Milley as one of the advisors urging on Trump’s drone assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani — the one-year anniversary of which fell on January 3, 2021, which was the reason there were fears of some kind of Iranian attack in Trump’s lame-duck period at all to begin with. Baker’s own reporting on that assassination at the time didn’t depict Milley in the best light, as he justified the reckless strike on the basis of reportedly vague intelligence about threats that didn’t actually come to pass.

On the other hand, Milley has been a voice of restraint on other wars, including during Joe Biden’s presidency, and Trump is a relentless, career-long liar.

Whatever the case, the bigger point here is that there are US war plans for Iran at all. One could argue that the military has to draw up potential plans for all kinds of contingencies (even if the fact that they allegedly passed it on to Trump suggests this was more than just a hypothetical, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency document filed away in obscurity).

But this comes in the midst of years of ratcheting up tensions between not just Iran and the United States, but maybe more dangerously, Iran and Israel. The latter’s government has been pushing the Biden administration to take a more aggressive posture posture toward Iran for years, pressure that has been ratcheted up under Netanyahu’s current hard-line government, which has carried out its own strikes inside Iran and done several major and threatening joint exercises with the US military, including one just last week.

More recently, the Discord leaks of Pentagon intelligence revealed that the CIA itself doesn’t know how serious Israel is about its threats to attack. Even so, the White House has signaled it would approve of whatever Israel decides to do, even if Israel ends up sparking a regional war or even drags the United States into the fray — a radical reversal of US posture under President Barack Obama.

And while Washington and Tehran have thankfully made recent progress in nuclear talks that Biden himself declared “dead” last year, that may not matter. Netanyahu, no doubt emboldened by the White House’s “ironclad” support, has more or less explicitly said that whatever agreement is struck, Israel won’t be bound by it and won’t consider Iran’s nuclear program stopped, justifying unilateral strikes regardless — even as the Pentagon’s own National Defense Strategy paper openly states that Iran not only doesn’t have a nuclear weapon but isn’t even currently pursuing one.

The existence of US war plans for Iran suggests it wouldn’t take much for Israeli attacks to draw the United States into yet another disastrous war, particularly if Iran retaliates, particularly if it winds up killing Americans in the process, whether intentionally or not. Any such war would be a calamity, not just for innocent Iranians but around the world, further destabilizing oil prices and adding to the economic havoc from the war in Ukraine that’s already caused much secondary human suffering, while potentially creating the conditions for a much bigger and more dangerous confrontation. Iran’s deepening alliance with Russia, after all, could draw Moscow into the war, turning the country into the second front of a global proxy battle between two nuclear superpowers, the United States and Russia, while adding a third nuclear power, Israel, into the volatile mix.

We’re not nearly there yet. But it’s incumbent on all peace-loving people in the United States to work now, proactively, to stop this scenario from coming to pass — not just to ensure the past year’s rhetoric about illegal wars, imperialism, human rights, and international law isn’t mere hollow, cynical posturing, but to prevent even more needless death and suffering. Unfortunately, what seems like collective disinterest in the US-Israeli march to war in the press and otherwise doesn’t bode well for these efforts.