Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday that there are indications Iran or its proxies may be planning additional attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East following the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on New Year's Eve, according to AP.

"We will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces and protect American lives. The game has changed, and we’re prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region. ... Do I think they may do something? Yes. And they will likely regret it."
— Esper to reporters

Why it matters: Esper's comments come two days after he dispatched hundreds of U.S. troops to the region as standby reinforcements, and reflect how the storming of the embassy may have set off one of one of the biggest foreign policy crises of the Trump presidency.

What they're saying: Hossein Salami, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, said Thursday that Iran is not afraid of war with the U.S.

  • "The Iranian nation has not started war in the past incidents but it annihilates any aggressor and the U.S. is aware of this," Salami said, according to Fars News Agency.
  • Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said militia groups will run into a "buzzsaw" if they attempt to overrun the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad again, according to AP.

The big picture: Trump faces a stark choice on countering Iran, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports. If he strikes back hard, he may get a new Middle East war he never wanted. If he does nothing, he may show the type of "weakness" exhibited by Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis that he has long derided.

Go deeper: Behind the scenes of Trump's thinking on Iran

Go deeper

Updated 38 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Tim Scott says Trump "misspoke" when he told Proud Boys to "stand by"

Photo: Bonnie Cash/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told reporters on Wednesday that he believes President Trump "misspoke" when he told the far-right "Proud Boys" group to "stand back and stand by" in response to a question about condemning white supremacy at the first presidential debate.

Catch up quick: Moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump on Tuesday, "Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down?" Trump asked who specifically he should condemn, and then responded, "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left."

Updated 46 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Commission on Presidential Debates wants changes

Photos: Jim Watson and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Wednesday that it plans to implement changes to rules for the remaining debates, after Tuesday night's head-to-head between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was practically incoherent for most of the night.

What they are saying: "Last night's debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues," the CPD said in a statement.

Trump says he doesn't know who Proud Boys are after telling them to "stand by"

President Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he doesn't know who the Proud Boys are, after saying at the presidential debate last night that the far-right group should "stand back and stand by" in response to a question asking him to condemn white supremacists.

Why it matters: The comments set off outrage and calls for clarification from a number of Republican senators. After being asked several times on Wednesday whether he will condemn white supremacy, Trump responded, "I have always denounced any form — any form of any of that, you have to denounce. But I also — Joe Biden has to say something about antifa."