WASHINGTON - For five straight days, President Donald Trump warned, sometimes in all-caps, that he would retaliate against any Iranian attack on U.S. forces. He pledged to deploy the most "brand new beautiful" weaponry. He vowed to strike back in a "disproportionate manner." And he said he would do so "without hesitation."
But in the hours Tuesday after Iran fired a dozen ballistic missiles against two U.S. military bases in Iraq, Trump - at least publicly - was initially without words and the world was left to wonder what he might do next.
And at 9:45 p.m., Trump's first public comment was uncharacteristically sanguine, even a tad chirpy. "All is well!" he tweeted.
He continued: "Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning."
All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 8, 2020
At the White House, where the president assembled his relatively skeletal war Cabinet after nightfall, there was a vacuum of information. Officials were tight-lipped and bleary-eyed. The press secretary did not answer questions, only briefly ducking out of her office a bit before 9 p.m. to head home for the evening. A presidential address was considered but not delivered. Trump's Twitter feed, often a pulsating applause meter during live events, at first stayed frozen in time.
For a few hours, at least, with the United States at the dangerous precipice of a hot war with Iran, there was an outward appearance of calm at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - or at least quiet.
A federal government now accustomed to shifting course based on the president's whims was awaiting the commander in chief's decision about how or whether to retaliate against Iran's missile attacks. Administration officials remained uncertain about whether Tuesday night's assault marked Iran's final response to the U.S. drone strike that killed one of its top generals, or the nation's opening salvo.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper - spotted on television feeds carrying a large dark bag - and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were among those on the national security team who briefed Trump for a little over an hour at the White House late Tuesday.
Even as damage assessments and other intelligence from the attacks came into the Pentagon, officials sought to convey to the president that the situation was not spiraling out of control, according to two administration officials, and that he should refrain from addressing the nation Tuesday evening. One of them said there were not "massive damages" at the air bases.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close Trump ally who spoke to the president Tuesday night, said in an interview that Trump believes he's now operating from a position of strength.
"He feels he's got a strong hand," Graham said. "He doesn't seek escalation. He is not going to tolerate provocation. He's going to be thinking tonight along the lines to restore deterrence and how to change their behavior."
Amid the uncertainty Tuesday evening, mixed messages emanated from official White House channels - when aides shared any information at all. Some staff told reporters that Trump might, in fact, address the nation in a prime time television address, but later, the White House press team officially confirmed that Trump would not speak Tuesday night.
"The president is not addressing the nation tonight," White House spokesman Judd Deere told the small group of reporters gathered outside White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham's office.
Grisham, meanwhile, sent out a tweet chastising CNN for reporting that preparations were underway for a presidential address Tuesday night - even though that's what some of her own colleagues had been telling journalists.
Trump is expected to huddle with national security aides again in the morning, a senior administration official said.
On the president's public schedule Wednesday, he had just one event listed: An Oval Office intelligence briefing at 2:15 p.m.
This article was written by Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey, reporters for The Washington Post.