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Trump on whether the United States supports the protesters in Iran: The answer is no. I mean yes.

The chatterati on Twitter were shocked by this answer but I don’t know why. How often does he cheerlead popular uprisings against illiberal authoritarian regimes?

True, he did sign the bill last week sanctioning Chinese officials who participate in a crackdown on Hong Kong but that bill was going to end up as law whether he signed or not. He chose to sign and spare himself the embarrassment of having his veto overridden — and even in signing, he went out of his way to stress his respect for Xi Jinping *and* to warn that he might not enforce certain provisions. He hasn’t spoken up personally in support of the Hong Kong protesters, evidently as part of a promise he made to Xi. Let’s hold the standing ovation until we see him actually implement the sanctions.

He did acknowledge the brutality of Iran’s crackdown on the protesters in other comments today:

“Iran is killing perhaps thousands and thousands of people right now as we speak, that it why they cut off the internet so people can’t see what is going on,” Trump said during a visit to London for a NATO Summit.

“Not just small numbers which are bad, big numbers which are really bad, and really big numbers … It is a terrible thing and the world has to be watching.”

I don’t know if it’s thousands — yet — but it’s a lot, with the Times estimating somewhere between 180 and 450 killed (“and possibly more”) over just four days of protests after the regime hiked gas prices. By comparison, fewer than 100 were killed over 10 months during the Green Revolution of 2009. It’s bad. So why wouldn’t Trump express solidarity?

One possibility is that it’s because he’s a transactional politician and has spent the past year trying to get Iran’s leadership to transact with him. It’s the same playbook as North Korea — twist their arm with sanctions until they grant him an unprecedented presidential summit to discuss nuclear policy but keep quiet about their human-rights abuses so as not to antagonize them. (In the past, it was rogue states that begged for summits with the White House, not vice versa.) But the Iranians have held out, vowing that there’ll be no talks until sanctions are lifted. Essentially the two sides are having a staring contest to see who’ll drop their core demand first in the name of taking the next diplomatic step. Trump may have thought that by siding openly with the protesters, he’d deepen the rift with the regime to the point where they’d rule out talks categorically. It’s one thing to have the U.S. apply economic pressure to them in hopes of squeezing them into agreeing to a more favorable nuclear deal, it’s another to have the U.S. openly supporting a nascent revolutionary movement.

Someone should tell Mike Pompeo:

“As I said to the people of Iran almost a year and a half ago: The United States is with you,” Pompeo said, retweeting a Persian-language tweet he sent out in July 2018 that referenced a speech he made that directly addressed the Iranian people.

“After 40 years of tyranny, the proud Iranian people are not staying silent about their government’s abuses,” Pompeo wrote in the original Persian tweet. “We will not stay silent either. I have a message for the people of Iran: The United States hears you. The United States supports you. The United States is with you.”

Pompeo said that a few weeks ago. Either Trump’s comment this morning was a coordinated game of good cop/bad cop, designed to remind the regime that the president is more open to friendly relations with Iran than his underlings are, or it’s an unusually high-profile example of the president and his more traditional Republican deputies once again following two different foreign policies. Pompeo is giving us the standard GOP line: Of course we stand with people seeking freedom from oppression by an evil regime. Trump is giving us the realist line: If they give me what I want, they can do whatever they want to whoever they want.

But wait. About an hour after he made the comments in the clip above, with the media in an uproar and hawkish Republicans (including Pompeo?) no doubt demanding clarification behind the scenes, he tweeted this:

What happened? Did he not hear the question? It’s clear as a bell in the clip. Did he mean “no comment” when he said “no”? Because his new tweet proves that he is willing to comment. Maybe he just … misunderstood the question?

Our own Ed Morrissey predicted via email before Rogin tweeted that that would be the clean-up excuse offered by the White House. “We support the protesters morally, not materially.” Well done, Ed.

This would have been a fun item for the “What If Obama Said It?” list if Trump had stood by his remarks, though, since O’s first major foreign policy sin as president in 2009 was keeping a low profile during the Green Revolution. He was eyeing detente with Iran’s regime from the start and he seemed to fear that any overt U.S. cheerleading for the protesters would make it easier for the regime to convince Iranians that the uprising was an American plot. So he laid low — and got blasted for it from righties like me who saw his timidity as a betrayal of those who were putting their lives on the line to demand that an enemy state liberalize. Here was Trump this morning seemingly doing the same thing for basically the same reason, not wanting to jeopardize his chances at diplomacy with Iran’s leaders by signaling support for the protesters. I’m curious to see what his aides have to say to the media about this episode on background for the papers tomorrow. Did the president really misunderstand the question or did he give his honest off-the-cuff view of the protests, which is perfectly in keeping with his view of protests generally, and then got an earful from his hawkish advisors behind the scenes about how he’s undermining his own Iran policy?