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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
President Trump twice raised to the Iraqi prime minister the idea of repaying America for its wars with Iraqi oil, a highly controversial ask that runs afoul of international norms and logic, according to sources with direct knowledge.
Trump appears to have finally given up on this idea, but until now it hasn't been revealed that as president he's raised the concept twice with Iraq's prime minister and brought it up separately in the Situation Room with his national security team.
In March last year, at the end of a White House meeting with Iraq's then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Trump brought up the subject of taking oil from Iraq to reimburse the United States for the costs of the war there.
- "It was a very run-of-the-mill, low-key, meeting in general," a source who was in the room told Axios. "And then right at the end, Trump says something to the effect of, he gets a little smirk on his face and he says, 'So what are we going to do about the oil?'"
Between the lines: On the campaign trail, Trump complained that the U.S. had spent trillions in Iraq and lost thousands of lives but got "nothing" in return. He lamented that usually in war "to the victor belong the spoils" and he repeatedly said the U.S. should have seized Iraq's oilfields as reimbursement for the steep costs of the war.
- Top national security figures from both parties condemned Trump's idea, calling it outrageous and unworkable — a violation of international law that would fuel the propaganda of America's foes.
In the March meeting, the Iraqi prime minister replied, "What do you mean?" according to the source in the room. "And Trump's like, 'Well, we did a lot, we did a lot over there, we spent trillions over there, and a lot of people have been talking about the oil.'"
Al-Abadi "had clearly prepared," the source added, "and he said something like, 'Well, you know Mr. President, we work very closely with a lot of American companies and American energy companies have interests in our country,'" the source added. "He was smirking. And the president just kind of tapped his hand on the table as if to say 'I had to ask.'"
- "I remember thinking, 'Wow. He said it. He couldn't help himself,'" the source said.
- A second source who was in the room confirmed this account. "It was a look down and reach for your coffee moment," the second source said.
- A third source, who was briefed at the time on the conversation between Trump and al-Abadi, said the back and forth "made its rounds" around the National Security Council. "It was still early on in the administration, and we were all still trying to figure out how this was going to go, and so it was one of those horror stories … he's really going to do this."
Why it matters: Trump's desire to raid Iraq's oil is illegal and unworkable. But it reveals a great deal about his approach to the Middle East. Trump remains hellbent on extracting payments from Middle Eastern countries, in the form of natural resources, for the trillions of dollars America has spent since the early 2000s. Bob Woodward and others have reported on the formal steps Trump took to push his team to extract rare minerals from Afghanistan as repayment for the war. (Security concerns have stymied that effort; though Afghan's leadership was more open to Trump's pitch than Iraq's leaders have been.)
Trump's national security team has mostly pushed back on or ignored these desires to raid Middle Eastern natural resources. The president raised the issue of oil again with al-Abadi on a phone call in the summer of 2017. The conversation was vague and didn’t go anywhere, but H.R. McMaster admonished Trump afterward, according to a source with direct knowledge.
- In the source's recollection, the former national security adviser said to Trump, "We can't do this and you shouldn't talk about it. Because talking about it is just bad," the source said, channeling McMaster, "It's bad for America's reputation, it'll spook allies, it scares everybody, and it makes us look like — I don't remember if he used words this harsh — like criminals and thieves, but that was the point he was trying to get across."
- "You won't be able to do it anyway and you'll harm our reputation and your own reputation just from talking about it."
Trump did not react kindly, the source said. "It was frustration that he was trying to get his advisers to do things that he wanted them to do and they were just pushing back."
The bottom line: It's not a one-time thing. Two sources described being in the Situation Room in 2017 with Trump, Defense Secretary Mattis and national security officials discussing Iraq. Both said Trump brought up the prospect of seizing Iraq's oil, and Mattis pushed back.
- "Trump was like, 'We're idiots,'" recalled one of the sources who was in the Situation Room for the conversation. "[Trump] was like, 'What are we doing there, what do we get out of this, why don't we take the oil?'... And then Mattis spoke up. Made the same point that H.R. made. There's no physical way to do it. It would be a violation of international law, it would be demoralizing for allies in the region, it would give our enemies propaganda — they'd be able to accuse us of theft."
Asked about our reporting, Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White said, "We do not discuss internal deliberations, and the secretary's advice and counsel to the president is private." And an NSC spokesperson said, "We do not comment on the details of the president's conversations with foreign leaders."
- The spokesperson continued, "[w]e have long sought to help Iraq achieve energy independence and continue to do so. We are encouraged by recent developments and believe Iraq can satisfy its own demand for energy, stop importing electricity, and increase its oil output to provide essential revenue required to rebuild following ISIS defeat and lay the foundation for Iraq’s future. The United States looks forward to working with the government and people of Iraq to make this possible."