WASHINGTON — It's one of the most commonly heard phrases around the White House as aides seek to explain Donald Trump's thinking: "The president has made clear that ..."
But saying so doesn't make it so. And on the question of a theoretical meeting between U.S. and Iranian leaders, it's not clear at all.
On Sunday, Trump flatly contradicted top aides who had characterized his thinking on Iran last week, before a weekend attack claimed by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels on major oil sites in Saudi Arabia; Iran denied responsibility. Trump also contradicted his own remarks.
TRUMP tweet: "The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, 'No Conditions.' That is an incorrect statement (as usual!)."
THE FACTS: Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the White House that Trump said he would meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without setting any conditions first. Often, top-level diplomacy between adversaries only proceeds after both sides agree to take a few steps to ease tensions.
The aides were echoing Trump's own words. Asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" in June whether he'd set any conditions for meeting Iranian leadership, Trump replied: "Not as far as I'm concerned. No preconditions."
And Trump told reporters in July 2018 that it would be good for both countries if the leaders talked: "No preconditions. If they wanna meet, I'll meet."
Trump explained Monday that sanctions won't be taken off Iran as a requirement for talks, and that's what he meant when he declared "no preconditions." But the absence of preconditions cuts both ways. It also means, for example, that Iran's behavior — with its nuclear program or with hostile actions against other states in the region — do not need to be checked for Trump and Iran's leadership to come to the table.
Here's the White House transcript of the exchange with Pompeo and Mnuchin last Tuesday as they joined in a briefing to discuss terrorism sanctions:
MNUCHIN: "I would say Secretary Pompeo and myself and the president are completely aligned on our maximum pressure campaign. I think you know we've done more sanctions on Iran than anybody. And it's absolutely working. Now, the president has made clear he is happy to take a meeting with no preconditions, but we are maintaining the maximum pressure campaign."
Q: So, Secretary Pompeo, for clarity on this, can you foresee a meeting between President Trump and the Iranian leader later this month surrounding the United Nations?"
Q: "Would the president support that, and do you support that actively?"
POMPEO: "The president has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions."