ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The strike had been ordered, the planes were ready to go, and then with about 10 minutes to spare, President Trump says he called off a military action meant to retaliate against Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Shortly after 9 o'clock this morning, the president tweeted that he had decided to halt the strike because of how many people could have died in the attack, a decision Trump discussed with NBC News earlier today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I said, I want to know something before you go. How many people will be killed - in this case, Iranians? I said, how many people are going to be killed? Sir, I'd like to get back to you on that. Great people, these generals. They said - came back, said, sir, approximately 150. And I thought about it for a second. 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 an 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.
SHAPIRO: In a different part of that interview, President Trump said while he doesn't want war with Iran, if it happens, there would be, quote, "obliteration like you've never seen before." There are many questions about how that process unfolded and what comes next for Iran and the U.S. And to talk about that, we're joined by two of our reporters - NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and NPR Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman. Good to have you both here.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Franco, let's start with you. Before President Trump made this decision, how united was his administration around whether to strike back at Iran?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I can tell you that President Trump was clear that this was his call to back out of the strike. I spoke with a senior administration official just this morning who told me that national security and defense advisers were unanimously behind the retaliation plan before the president called it off. But we do know - and I want to be clear - that there are senior Pentagon officials who have also been very weary of this situation, and they have been worried about this escalating out of control.
SHAPIRO: Well, Tom, you've been talking to people at the Pentagon today. I know it's very unusual for military operations, once approved by the president, to be called off at the last minute. And we've been hearing today that the administration is weighing other options. Do you know what those options are?
BOWMAN: You know, we don't. Members of Congress were at the White House. They were not told what options are on the table, only that the White House has what one lawmaker called a series of options. Now, are they all military options, bombing options, cyberattacks? Again, really no word. Now, our colleague Ryan Lucas was told by a U.S. official that some members of Congress worry that any military action could split the U.S. from its allies. And this official said Pentagon officials, by the way, added there could be consequences from attacking Iran, such as U.S. troops getting kicked out of Iraq, where a number of political leaders in Iraq have close Iranian ties.
SHAPIRO: Franco, as you talked to people at the White House, do you get the sense that there were other factors beyond the potential death toll that drove President Trump's decision?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, this is definitely not just a diplomatic issue. President Trump just launched his reelection campaign. He's clearly concerned about ending up in another war, an endless, expensive war as he has said. He has said as much. He said so in Japan. And getting out of these, you know, so-called never-ending wars was a big part of his campaign in 2016. The issue is he was also very critical of Iran during the same campaign, as well as the previous administration's approach.
I was just talking with a former White House official in the Trump administration who was telling me that he's really trapped between trying to open negotiations with Iran, make a deal, but also being critical of the negotiations that Obama did. And the Iranians are provoking him.
SHAPIRO: Tom, the administration has said for months that it wants Iran to come to the negotiating table. Do the people you're talking to believe that this week's back-and-forth has brought Iran any closer to negotiation?
BOWMAN: No, they don't. And a lot of people at the Pentagon, going back to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, were supportive of the nuclear agreement that President Trump scrapped. And they're saying that if you bomb them, if you're pushing them into a corner, they're not going to be willing to come to the table to talk about this. So they're really worried about that.
And I know Congressman Adam Smith, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, was at the White House yesterday. He said he thought the administration is trying to calculate the right response to, on the one hand, calm the conflict down and also drive them to the negotiating table. But again, military officials I talk with say you're driving Iran into the corner like a cornered rat...
BOWMAN: ...And they're just going to lash out.
BOWMAN: And that's where we are now.
SHAPIRO: So just in our final seconds, Franco, what does the White House think the endgame here is?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, they're - that's what they're working on. They're looking at, you know, a bunch of different angles. But President Trump and his allies seem to be focused on sanctions and putting the economic clamps on Iran.
SHAPIRO: That's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman. Thanks to both of you.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.