Both Politico and the New York Times frame it as an "abrupt" tweet from the president: "I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea," wrote President Trump on Wednesday morning. It comes a week after 11 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy vessels came very close to six US Navy and Coast Guard ships in the Persian Gulf and zipped around at high speeds. The Times notes Trump said nothing at the time. Politico spoke with a former defense official who said that if such an order was made, it would be a major shake-up to the current rules of engagement, which stipulate that commanders respond only to direct threats; it gives the example of an Iranian ship firing at an American one.
Harassment doesn't fall under the umbrella of "direct threat," says Michael Mulroy, who was recently the Pentagon's Middle East policy chief. "The US Navy has clear rules of engagement ... [that] are consistent with all applicable laws of the sea and armed conflict," and escalate from audible warnings to flares to maneuvers; firing shots generally come as a last resort. A tweet likely isn't sufficient to change those rules of engagement, explains former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. The Times spoke with a Defense Department official who says no formal policy directive from the president has been received. Another source says there have been no repeats of last week's incident. (Read more Iran stories.)