Marco Rubio emerges as Donald Trump’s top defender on Iran

Florida’s senior U.S. senator once said Trump wasn’t ‘ready for the test.' Times have changed.
President Donald Trump is greeted by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., looks on, after Trump’s arrival on Air Force One at Miami International Airport in April 2018.
President Donald Trump is greeted by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., looks on, after Trump’s arrival on Air Force One at Miami International Airport in April 2018. [ PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS | AP ]
Published Jan. 8, 2020|Updated Jan. 8, 2020

Back when they were primary foes, Sen. Marco Rubio suggested Donald Trump wasn’t up to the challenge of commanding the world’s most powerful military. He asserted foreign adversaries like Iran would take advantage of Trump’s perceived ignorance on world affairs.

Trump, Rubio said in 2016, “is not ready for the test.”

“He doesn’t know anything about policy,” Rubio said.

But the Jan. 3 U.S. strike against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani is the latest example of how much Rubio’s opinion of Trump has flipped since those remarks. Rubio, who once said Trump was too “dangerous” to possess the nuclear codes, applauded Trump’s “tremendous restraint” on Iran — right after the president gave the go-ahead for the attack at Baghdad’s international airport.

Rubio, in 2016, said Trump was “an embarrassment.” Now, those those who blame Trump for escalating tension with Iran have “anti-Trump derangement syndrome," Rubio wrote on Twitter. On television and via social media, few have come to Trump’s defense in the past week with as much fervor as Rubio.

Within hours of Iran’s retaliatory missile strike aimed at U.S. troops in Iraq Tuesday night, Rubio tweeted: “I am very confident (Trump) will pursue an appropriate response & act at a time of our choosing.”

Rubio was not available for an interview, his office told the Tampa Bay Times. Asked to explain Rubio’s prior statements about Trump, a spokesman noted Trump is now entering his fourth year in office. The spokesman pointed to a New York Times story on Rubio’s growing influence in Trump’s global strategy, especially in the South America. The article highlighted how Rubio worked with Vice President Mike Pence to earn Trump’s trust on these matters.

Rubio’s about face on Trump doesn’t reflect a change in the president — who the Florida Republican predicted would fail to earn the world’s respect. Trump remains who he was in the campaign: unpredictable, dismissive of allies and experts and instinctual.

Nevertheless, Rubio continues to find his hawkish worldview overlapping with the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy. Rubio ran for president promising to strengthen the U.S. military and use American power to “to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space.” From Venezuela and Cuba to China and now Iran, Trump repeatedly has taken action that has won over his former Republican rival.

RELATED: Marco Rubio and Venezuela: What a Twitter campaign to oust Maduro says about modern diplomacy

For a while, Republicans in Florida and Washington speculated Rubio could be positioning himself to succeed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. However, that speculation has taken a break, at least for now. Multiple media outlets have reported this week that Pompeo will remain in Trump’s Cabinet and not seek a Kansas seat in the U.S. Senate.

So Rubio remains in the Senate. It’s there, from his vantage on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, that Rubio has long urged the United States to take a stronger position against Iran. He was a vocal critic of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that was reached under President Barack Obama. It included the European Union and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, but Trump had the U.S. abandon the deal last year. After the Jan. 3 attack, the future of the deal is in doubt.

But unlike Trump’s maneuverings to cut off the Castro regime or inflict more economic harm on China, the latest escalation in the Middle East has pushed the United States to the brink of a protracted military campaign against Iran, if not an all-out-war. The action has led many 2020 Democratic hopefuls to echo some of the concerns that Rubio once espoused about a Trump administration.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said Trump relied on a “haphazard decision-making process.” Sen. Bernie Sanders said the president acted "impulsively without explanation.”

“We’re not here by accident,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted. “We’re here because a reckless president.”

Other Florida Democrats have questioned whether Trump has a plan for what’s next.

“This reckless and destabilizing strike puts Americans and our allies at risk,” U.S. Rep. Val Demings, an Orlando Democrat said. “Did we confer with our allies in the region? What is the Administration’s overall strategic plan since deliberately undermining the Iran nuclear deal?”

Rubio has responded harshly to these criticisms, insisting Iran is the bad actor and the instigator. On Sunday’s episode of CBS’ Face the Nation, Rubio said Trump’s strategy is clear to him.

“It’s self defense,” Rubio said, alluding to the administration’s insistence that an attack from Soleimani was imminent. He couldn’t, however, discuss how he knew that because “it’s highly sensitive. It cannot be disclosed at this time without also putting a danger.”

Rubio has said that what happens next is up to Iran, leading to an uncertain future.

“Do you believe now that America is safer after carrying out the strike against Qasem Soleimani?" Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan asked.

Rubio’s response was typical of the Florida Republican: A prolonged, seemingly effortless monologue that displayed a command of foreign affairs.

One word it didn’t include? “Yes.”