American officials said Thursday that General Nicholson had not requested permission from Mr. Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis or Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before dropping the giant bomb, a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB.
And it does not appear the White House was aware of the location of the carrier group when the press secretary, Sean Spicer, or the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, made their public comments about it. White House officials said both men were relying on talking points supplied by the Pentagon.
General Nicholson already had the necessary authority to bomb the tunnel complex and had it during the Obama administration as well, American officials said.
But current and former Defense Department officials said that if President Barack Obama were still in office, General Nicholson would probably have checked with his bosses before calling in the country’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb, because the Obama White House had made clear to the Pentagon that the president wanted to be consulted on major strike decisions.
“Nicholson should have been a little more aware that using that weapon for the first time would be a big story,” Mr. Scher said.
Mr. Trump has made clear that he does not want to be consulted on every strike, and that he wants commanders in the field to have more authority to move swiftly against foes.
The timing of the episodes, at the beginning of the Trump administration, most likely played a part, one Obama administration official noted.
“Once the previous administration’s political appointees have departed, the balance of power in the Pentagon always shifts away from the civilians and toward the uniformed officers,” said Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and top Pentagon Middle East policy official.
“That’s not necessarily dangerous, but until you get the new administration’s team in place, you miss the policy oversight that can sometimes help field commanders — who are appropriately focused on operations — think through the political and strategic ramifications of their actions.”
The bomb was dropped at an already fraught time for American security, with a narrative that had begun to take hold of an untethered Pentagon, freed from Obama-era restrictions.
Only days earlier, the United States had fired dozens of missiles at the airfield in Syria from which President Bashar al-Assad had launched a chemical weapons attack. (Mr. Trump authorized that strike.)
And the country was bracing for a possible showdown with Pyongyang as the North Korean…