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Trump says it doesn't matter if Soleimani posed an imminent threat
President Trump on Monday downplayed the significance of any imminent threat to the U.S. before he ordered the strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, raising new questions about the intelligence preceding the move.
The comments marked the latest revision in what's become a shifting explanation about the threat Soleimani posed to U.S. personnel in the Middle East. Over the weekend, some of Trump's top advisers were unable to confirm his claim that Soleimani was planning to target four U.S. embassies.
The episode has prompted renewed scrutiny of the Jan. 3 strike that nearly set off a wider conflict in the Middle East.
"This administration already has a credibility problem, and President Trump has a pretty casual relationship with the truth," said William Inboden, who served on former President George W. Bush's National Security Council. "So even when he does what I would regard as the right thing or a good policy decision with Soleimani, he then hurts himself and widens the credibility gap with these shifting explanations."
Trump authorized the strike just days after an Iranian-backed militia group launched a rocket attack in Iraq that killed an American contractor and wounded U.S. personnel. It also came after a violent assault by Iran-backed protesters on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The drone strike was widely cheered by Republicans, who argued it was long overdue given Soleimani's actions as head of Iran's Quds Force, a designated terrorist organization. He had also been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of American service members in the Middle East.
Trump administration officials characterized the strike as a defensive measure, meant to fend off imminent attacks by Iran on U.S. facilities.
But in the 10 days since the strike, Trump's justifications for it have muddied the waters, putting officials on defense as they seek to explain his decision. At times, top officials have oscillated between suggesting the strike was in retaliation for Iran's escalatory behavior in the region and pointing to an "imminent" threat to American lives, but without providing many details.
"If you're looking for imminence, you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a State Department briefing last week.
"And then you, in addition to that, have what we could clearly see were continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead, potentially, to the death of many more Americans," he said.
Pompeo and others have described the threat to U.S. lives as imminent while acknowledging that the timing and place of the planned attack were not fully known.
Trump's remarks, meanwhile, have put senior officials in a precarious spot by getting more specific in his description of what Soleimani was believed to be planning. He told Fox News in an interview Friday that four embassies were being targeted, a detail lawmakers said was left out of a classified briefing just two days earlier.
The president was asked Monday at the White House what the intelligence showed about the threat to embassies.
"I think it's been totally consistent," Trump said before launching into an attack on Democrats and a broader condemnation of Soleimani.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday that he didn't see specific intelligence pointing to an imminent threat to four embassies, while adding that he agreed with Trump in the sense that his "expectation was they were going to go after our embassies."
Trump on Monday insisted the threat posed by Soleimani was imminent and that his team was in agreement on the strike, but tweeted "it doesn't really matter because of his horrible past!"
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham dismissed scrutiny of Trump's claim that four embassies were in the crosshairs as "semantics."
"The fact of the matter here is, again, the president took decisive action and ordered a targeted strike that took out one of the most horrible terrorists in the world, and who was planning to kill a lot of Americans," she told Fox News.
Democrats have seized on the lack of clarity to hammer the administration over the decision to launch the strike, something the president's defenders view as disingenuous and overtly partisan given the danger consistently posed by Soleimani to U.S. interests.
"What seems to be clear across government was that Iranian proxies, led by [Soleimani], were planning to put U.S. lives in jeopardy. [Soleimani] is a mass murderer of American troops and Iranian dissidents," one former White House official said, while acknowledging that the embassy claim may have been an "embellishment" by Trump.
If Trump hadn't acted and the embassy or U.S. personnel were attacked, the former official argued, Democrats "would be saying he failed his most basic responsibility as commander in chief."
Inboden, Bush's former national security aide who is now executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin, described the changing rationale for the strike as an "own goal" for an administration that struggles with public messaging.
The administration likely had the legal justification it needed to take out Soleimani, Inboden said, given he had been labeled a terrorist and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in Iraq and elsewhere over the past several years.
But after Pompeo tweeted the day after the strike that it came in response to "imminent threats to American lives," that led to a series of attempted justifications that struggled to pass muster with lawmakers.
"It doesn't seem that they had specific intelligence of an imminent threat defined as knowing the time and place it was going to take place," Inboden said. "So they backed themselves into a corner by harping on the imminence part."
Lawmakers were outraged following a classified briefing last week, which Democrats and a few Republicans said failed to outline any specific looming threat from Soleimani. Democrats in particular have since said the briefing did not include information about potential attacks on any U.S. embassies.
The frustrations serve as a backdrop to Congress considering legislation to curb presidential war powers. The Democratic-controlled House last week passed a resolution to rein in Trump's ability to act against Iran without congressional approval in a near party-line vote.
Alex Conant, former communications director to Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign, predicted that Trump would not incur any political damage as a result of the inconsistent messaging because his administration was able to execute the strike successfully without triggering a broader military conflict.
"The lack of message discipline or communications strategy would be a problem if Trump were trying to rally the country in a war. But he's not as of now," Conant said.