President Trump calls his military clash with Iran over a besieged U.S. Embassy “the opposite of Benghazi,” and people close to him say it’s impossible to overstate how deeply Mr. Trump was influenced by the fatal 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. facilities in Libya, and by President Barack Obama’s weak response.
When Iran-backed forces attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and set fires to the walls of the compound, Mr. Trump quickly ordered a contingent of Marines to defend the complex.
Then he ordered a drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a designated terrorist believed to have plotted the embassy assault and to have been planning more attacks on Americans.
“You can’t underestimate the impact that had on the president’s decision, when he saw the burned-out embassy in Baghdad,” said Christopher Ruddy, a longtime friend of the president. “I think he was pretty shocked.”
Mr. Ruddy said the president has always considered the deaths of four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, in an Islamist attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi “a shameful mark on our country’s standing in the world.”
“And he thinks part of that was Obama’s weakness that led to it — people thought they could get away without reprisals,” Mr. Ruddy said.
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In the wake of the U.S. clash with Iran, the Iranian government admitted its air defense forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet taking off from Tehran last week, killing all 176 people aboard. The revelation has led to anti-government street protests in Iran, and Mr. Trump warned Iranian leaders Sunday, “DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching.”
The latest internal threat to the Iranian regime has resulted, at least in part, from Mr. Trump’s confrontation of Iranian forces assaulting the U.S. Embassy in Iraq around New Year’s Day.
At his first major campaign rally of the year last week, in Toledo, Ohio, the president described his outrage at watching Islamist extremists attacking the embassy in Baghdad, smashing windows and burning an outer reception area.
“I saw what was happening,” Mr. Trump said. “And that was going to be another Benghazi, had they broken through the final panels of glass. Had they gotten through, we would have had either hundreds of dead people or hundreds of hostages. That wasn’t going to happen, and I called up our great generals.”
He said with satisfaction, “We got there very quickly. We did it exactly the opposite of Benghazi, where they got there so late.”
On Sept. 11, 2012, during the thick of Mr. Obama’s reelection campaign, terrorists from the Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah stormed two U.S. facilities in Benghazi.
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U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith were killed at the diplomatic compound. Former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed early the next morning during a mortar attack at a CIA annex nearby. Ten other people were wounded.
Mr. Obama told an interviewer on Sept. 12 that it was “too early to tell” whether the attacks were terrorism. Top administration officials initially clung to the story that the attacks were spontaneous protests against an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. rather than premeditated terrorism, a version that proved untrue.
Obama administration officials, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were criticized heavily for failing to send help to Benghazi. Four State Department officials ultimately were disciplined, but numerous congressional investigations failed to hold anyone accountable.
Then-Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas issued a 48-page supplementary report with Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, in 2016 calling Benghazi “a tragic failure of leadership.” They said the Obama administration was “so blinded by politics and its desire to win an election, [it] disregarded a basic duty of government: tell the people the truth. And for those reasons Benghazi is, and always will be, an American tragedy.”
The two men were also critical of Mrs. Clinton, who held the State Department post that Mr. Pompeo now occupies.
“Secretary Clinton and the administration told one story privately — that Benghazi was a terrorist attack — and told another story publicly — blaming a video-inspired protest,” they wrote.
Critics have accused Mr. Trump of overreacting against Iran to prevent “another Benghazi” in an election year. Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said the difference is that Mr. Trump “took decisive action when our embassy was under assault. That didn’t happen in Benghazi.”
He also said the accusations from liberals that Mr. Trump was trying to avoid his own Benghazi implicitly acknowledges that Benghazi was “a total leadership disaster.”
Mr. Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax, said Mr. Trump “doesn’t make decisions based on an election.”
“He’s going to do what he thinks is the right thing to do at the time. That’s just not his M.O.,” he said.
Over the years, Mr. Trump has tweeted about Benghazi more than 70 times.
“The president knew that the ambassador was being attacked in Benghazi,” Mr. Trump tweeted about Mr. Obama on Sept. 21, 2012. “He did nothing … he is no leader.”
The day before Mr. Obama’s reelection in November 2012, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Benghazi is bigger than Watergate. Don’t let Obama get away with allowing Americans to die. Kick him out of office tomorrow.”
Mr. Ruddy said Mr. Trump also was affected in recent weeks by the death of American defense contractor Nawres Waleed Hamid of California, who was killed in late December in a strike by Iran-backed forces on an Iraqi military base where he worked as a linguist.
“Donald doesn’t like it when people die, but when Americans die, he’s particularly pained,” Mr. Ruddy said. “That contractor died. He knows the list — he recited to me all the things that Soleimani has been involved with, all the killings and cripplings of American soldiers through the years. I just think he thought ‘Enough is enough, I’m not going to have this guy running around the Middle East organizing all these acts against America. It’s over for him.’”
Mr. Trump said Soleimani “directed the recent rocket strikes that wounded four American service members, badly wounded, and killed an American citizen. That was just before we happened to hit him.”
“As the leader of Iran’s terrorist Quds Force, Soleimani spread death, destruction and mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond,” Mr. Trump said. “He ordered the violent assault on the American Embassy in Baghdad, and you saw — this was the anti-Benghazi.”
Mr. Trump also acted on the Benghazi attack.
In October 2017, U.S. forces carrying out his orders captured Mustafa al-Imam in Libya, who was wanted for his role in the Benghazi attack. The president said he would face justice for the deaths of the four Americans. Al-Imam was convicted in June on terrorism charges in federal court in New York.
When al-Imam was captured, Mr. Trump said the U.S. “will not rest in our efforts to find and bring the perpetrators of the heinous attacks in Benghazi to justice.”
“Our memory is deep, and our reach is long,” Mr. Trump said.