- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2020

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio | A hush fell over the crowd at the lunch counter Wednesday at Pee Dee’s Brunch and Bar as President Trump filled the overhead TV screen and responded to Iran’s missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq.

As Mr. Trump delivered the verdict that Iran “appeared to be standing down” and offered the Islamic republic a shot at negotiation and peace, there was a collective sigh of relief in the small restaurant, where customers talked and argued like family.

“He called their bluff,” said Dan, 35, a warehouse manager and Trump voter in this hardscrabble Rust Belt town about 40 miles west of Pittsburgh.

Diane Woods, the restaurant owner who frequently voices strong dislike for Mr. Trump, said she was pleased that the president did not escalate the confrontation.

“Of course I want the president to do great. It’s our country,” Ms. Woods, 55, said from behind the counter.

Mr. Trump is threading a needle on Iran as he faces reelection, downplaying the prospect of an unpopular military conflict while elevating his hard stance on Tehran’s nuclear program and his efforts to untether the U.S. from the Middle East.

“Mr. Trump wants to look tough but not get into an actual war,” said Andrew Kydd, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He said it’s a combination that’s popular with everyone except Republican neocons and the far-left of the Democratic Party, as the public waits to see if Iran is done retaliating for the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week.

Mr. Trump, flanked by top military brass, said Iran appeared to be finished lashing out after it fired more than a dozen missiles late Tuesday at bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops. The president said there were no casualties and only minimal damage.

“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Mr. Trump said.

It also would be popular.

Though it’s hard for pollsters to keep up with the latest developments, a University of Maryland poll from September found three-quarters of the American public did not think U.S. policy goals warranted going to war with Iran.

Similarly, nearly 8 in 10 Americans told Gallup in August they favor economic and diplomatic efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions instead of military action — including 72% of Republicans.

“The country’s a little on the war-weary side,” Republican pollster Glen Bolger said. “We need to be vigilant and strike back against terrorists, but that’s different than getting into a full-scale ground conflict.”

The president’s address to the nation Wednesday mostly hit the right notes in this eastern area of Ohio, where Mr. Trump in 2016 won over voters dissatisfied with politics as usual after the demise of the region’s steel mill economy. His speech satisfied his fans who want him to stand tough while providing comfort to Trump critics who feared he was rushing headlong into a Middle East war.

“You’ve got to have some balls. The Democrats have no balls,” said Kirk Mobley, 65, a retired member of the Boilermakers union and former Democrat who switched parties because of Mr. Trump and vowed never to go back.

Mr. Trump ordered the drone attack that killed Soleimani at the Baghdad airport last week, saying the general was responsible for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq and remained a threat to U.S. personnel.

Ms. Woods said she feared an all-out war after the strike.

“That stuff scares me,” she said. “They should have been more strategic about it. … Why aren’t you killing Kim Jong-un and [Vladimir] Putin?”

Though relieved by Mr. Trump’s address, Ms. Woods said there was no chance that she would vote for the president in November. She will opt for the Democratic nominee, whoever it is.

Top contenders for the Democratic nomination spent the last few days criticizing Mr. Trump for his approach to Iran, arguing he is scrambling to sweep up a mess he created by pulling out of the Obama-era nuclear deal and tightening the economic screws on Tehran.

“We wouldn’t be in this situation if Donald Trump hadn’t started here years ago, trying to move us toward an ever-escalating conflict with Iran,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a top-tier candidate in the Democratic presidential primary, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Yet Mr. Trump insists his predecessor’s nuclear deal was a disaster and, in a remarkable swipe, suggested President Obama’s decision to lift sanctions funded the Iranian missiles that flew toward U.S. troops late Tuesday. He opened his White House address by declaring that Iran “will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”

The ultimatum resonated with some voters in Steubenville, a town of more than 18,000 nestled along the Ohio River and the Pennsylvania and West Virginian borders.

“We can’t let them have a nuclear bomb,” said Rita Wigal, 77, a retired electric company clerk who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and “absolutely” plans to vote for him again this year.

The president won over voters in battlegrounds like Ohio by offering a mixed approach to the thorny Middle East. He vowed to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State while gradually unwinding U.S. involvement in the region to focus on “America first.”

Mr. Trump said the U.S. needs the Middle East less than it ever did before. He pointed to economic progress and efforts to tap domestic energy sources instead of relying on foreign oil.

Ms. Wigal said was impressed by the president’s declaration that the U.S. has achieved energy independence.

The U.S. for the first time in September exported more crude oil and petroleum products than it imported, reported the Energy Information Administration, the Energy Department’s independent data analysis agency.

“That’s wonderful that we are oil self-sufficient,” she said.

⦁ Tom Howell Jr. reported from Washington.

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