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President Trump holds back on strike against missile site

President Trump says he approved an airstrike against Iran in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. drone, only to call it off last-minute upon deciding the potential for casualties was too high. Now, some former senior military and diplomatic officials are questioning the president’s decision-making process. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The weekend is beginning amid a swirl of speculation about President Trump's intentions toward Iran. He says he was on the brink of ordering airstrikes last night, when he pulled back. Iran says it, too, is practicing restraint, despite having shot down a U.S. military drone.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Tehran today, the Revolutionary Guard Corps showed off their catch, the charred remains of the U.S. drone they shot down. But as he invited camera crews to document the destruction, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said yesterday could have been deadlier.

  • Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh (through translator):

    At the same moment when this aircraft was being tracked, another spy aircraft called P-8 was flying close to this drone. That aircraft is manned, and has around 35 crew members. We could have targeted that plane.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Six thousand miles away, in an interview with NBC News, President Trump described discussing options with military commanders, and also said yesterday could have been deadlier.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They came and they said: "Sir, we're ready to go. We'd like a decision." I said: "I want to know something before you go. How many people will be killed, in this case, Iranians?" Came back, said: "Sir, approximately 150."

    And 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 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half-hour after I said go ahead. And I didn't like it. I didn't think it was — I didn't think it was proportionate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iran says it used this interceptor missile to shoot down the drone. The U.S. military says it's located here, along Iran's coast.

    Former senior military officials tell "PBS NewsHour" the president was likely given options to attack that missile site, its command-and-control, and its radar systems.

    And those former senior military and diplomatic officials say the military strike options presented to the president would have included casualty estimates from the very beginning. It's not clear why the president received that information so close to giving an order to attack. But those former officials say it raises questions about the decision-making process.

  • Brett McGurk:

    Taking the president at his word today, the key fact, how many people are going to die in this attack, apparently was not in the president's mind until really before moments before he was going to order the attack.

    So that suggests to me a breakdown of the process. That should be one of the first facts that's on the table.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Brett McGurk was a senior State Department official until he resigned in December in protest to the administration's decision to withdrawal from Syria. He says the strike the president described could have quickly escalated.

  • Brett McGurk:

    An American attack that took 150 Iranian lives, particularly in response to an attack that took no American lives, I think the Iranians would be in a position, just given how they think, that they would have to respond to that.

    Therefore, there would be another reckless provocation from the Iranians, which would then put the onus again on President Trump to respond again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That fear was echoed today by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    A strike with that amount of collateral damage would be very provocative. And I'm glad the president didn't take that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But some of the president's allies called his response weak. Number three in the House Republican leadership, Liz Cheney of Wyoming:

  • Rep. Liz Cheney, D-Wyo.:

    I think that we simply can't allow America's adversaries to think that they can shoot down a U.S. military drone with impunity. And we saw the damage that was done by Barack Obama when he announced a red line and then failed to enforce it. The failure to respond to this kind of direct provocation could, in fact, be a very serious mistake.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The military remains ready to respond. But after yesterday's decision not to attack, analysts say the ball is now in Iran's court.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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