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Democrats 'utterly unpersuaded' by evidence behind Soleimani strike

Democrats said Wednesday that the Trump administration failed to present evidence supporting the claim that a top Iranian general killed in a U.S. drone strike was planning an imminent attack.

The frustration boiled over after back-to-back closed-door briefings on the strike that killed Iranian Quds Force leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineTwo Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 Democrats have no case against Amy Coney Barrett — but that won't stop them Pence-Harris debate draws more than 50M viewers, up 26 percent from 2016 MORE (D-Va.) said the evidence represented a “far cry” from an imminent attack, while Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyIRS closes in on final phase of challenging tax season Virginia voter registration website back up after outage on last day to register Judge issues nationwide injunction against Postal Service changes MORE (D-Va.) called the briefing “sophomoric.” 

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“I was utterly unpersuaded about any evidence about the imminence of a threat that was new or compelling,” Connolly said. 

Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Kasie Hunt to host lead-in show for MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' Senators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report MORE (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration did not provide clarity on a potential attack and questioned why they were withholding information from Congress. 

“I walk away unsatisfied in the key questions that I went into this briefing with, and it just makes me concerned that we cannot have clarity on those key questions — imminency, target, all of those things,” Menendez said. 

Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Democratic senators offer bill to make payroll tax deferral optional for federal workers MORE (D-Md.) said the administration “did not establish in any way” that “an imminent threat was posed.” Asked whether she was convinced, presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWhat do Google, banks and chicken salad have in common? Final debate: War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit Biden defends his health plan from Trump attacks MORE (D-Mass.) said flatly “no.” 

The comments came after Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Biden nets military family endorsements | Final debate features North Korea exchange | Judge refuses to dismiss sexual assault case against top general Israel signals it won't oppose F-35 sale to UAE Our troops in the Sinai are a small force with outsized importance MORE, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoEntire Nigerian police force mobilized after days of violent protests that have killed at least 69 Hillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting US critical facilities with destructive malware MORE, CIA Director Gina HaspelGina Cheri HaspelFormer Trump campaign adviser named to senior role at CIA: report CIA letting less intelligence on Russia reach Trump: report Russian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley briefed House and Senate lawmakers separately on the strike that killed Soleimani.

The strike brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war, with Tehran retaliating by launching missiles Tuesday at military bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops. Tension appeared to diffuse Wednesday after President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE confirmed no Americans were killed in Tuesday’s attack and said Iran appeared to be “standing down.”

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Administration officials have said the Soleimani strike was necessary to pre-empt an “imminent” attack he was planning, but have offered little evidence publicly.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Senate Democrats seek to alleviate public concern about some results not being available on election night MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations panel, appeared skeptical that the administration had evidence that could prove it was responding to an immediate threat and characterized the fallout from the strike so far as “cataclysmic.” 

“This appears to me to be a strike of choice by this administration, one that likely would have required congressional authorization beforehand,” Murphy said. 

“There are serious political consequences to the decision that was made and we did not get information inside that briefing that there was a specific imminent threat that we were halting under the operation conducted last Thursday night think. ... I think it is likely that it doesn’t exist,” he added. 

Asked Tuesday about the nature of the threat, Pompeo discussed past activities, including the December rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that killed a U.S. contractor. Esper told reporters Tuesday the alleged attack was “days” away without elaborating on the nature of the threat.

Republicans have backed up the Trump administration’s assessment of Soleimani’s threat and walked away from Wednesday's briefing saying the evidence was clear.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischWhy the US should rely more on strategy, not sanctions Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Senators blast Turkey's move to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque MORE (R-Okla.) said the evidence was “crystal clear,” adding that Democrats used the briefing to “question these people’s judgment on something that really shouldn’t have been questioned.”

“One of the things that came out of all of this is the tremendous hate and vitriol against this president, which is really coloring a lot of these people’s judgement on the defense of this country,” he added.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntPower players play chess match on COVID-19 aid GOP to Trump: Focus on policy Low-flying helicopters to measure radiation levels in DC before inauguration MORE (R-Mo.) said the administration did not give many details at the briefing on the plot itself, but described a timing “that would have made it imminent.”

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Chamber of Commerce endorses former White House physician Ronny Jackson for Congress Overnight Defense: Senate passes stopgap spending bill hours before shutdown deadline | Brief military mentions in chaotic first Trump, Biden debate | Lawmakers grills Pentagon officials over Germany drawdown MORE (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he was “persuaded that we had strong intelligence that meant we had to take action.”

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsSenate Health Committee chair asks Cuomo, Newsom to 'stop second guessing' FDA on vaccine efficacy Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day Trump hasn't asked Barr to open investigation into Bidens, McEnany says MORE (R-N.C.) said the briefing showed Soleimani was a “clear and present danger.”

Democrats agree Soleimani — who as the Quds Force leader was the architect of Iran’s proxy and shadow wars — was a dangerous man who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans through the years.

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But they have questioned the wisdom and strategy behind the strike, saying previous administrations led by presidents from both parties judged the risks of killing Soleimani to be higher than the risk of leaving him alive.

“The basic theme of it was the administration was essentially saying trust us,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOvernight Defense: Trump, Biden set to meet in final debate | Explicit Fort Bragg tweets were sent by account administrator | China threatens retaliation over Taiwan arms sale Is Trump a better choice for Jewish voters than Biden? Overnight Defense: Trump says he's leaving Walter Reed, 'feeling really good' after COVID-19 treatment | White House coronavirus outbreak grows | Dems expand probe into Pompeo speeches MORE (D-N.Y.) said of Wednesday’s briefing. “We’re told it was an imminent threat. I’m not sure I’m convinced about that. Look, the person we took out is no sweetheart, and I’m no fan of his, and I’m no fan of the Iranian regime. The question is, do we want to get sucked into another war.”

Engel added that he has several unanswered questions, noting he has invited Pompeo to appear at a public hearing next week. He raised the possibility of subpoenaing Pompeo if the secretary does not appear voluntarily, but said no decision has been made.

Breaking with some of his more critical Democratic colleagues, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGreenwald slams Schiff over Biden emails on Fox Hillicon Valley: DOJ accuses Russian hackers of targeting 2018 Olympics, French elections | Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats | House Democrats slam FCC over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats MORE (D-Calif.) characterized the briefing as a "useful" exchange. But he also quickly added that the hourlong meeting posed no substitute for the public hearings he hopes to stage into the reasoning behind the strike on Soleimani.

"There need to be open hearings where the administration answers questions about their strategy — or lack of strategy — [and] how this maximum pressure campaign, which is now made the likelihood of war with Iran so much greater, is somehow making Americans more safe," said Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "I think the administration should be willing to answer those questions in a public forum.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Trump announces opening of relations between Sudan and Israel Five takeaways on Iran, Russia election interference MORE (D-N.Y.) said there are “many” questions left unanswered after the briefing, and wants the same set of officials to come back. 

“As the questions began to get tough they walked out,” he said. “I’ve asked for a commitment that they all come back within a week.” 

Mike Lillis contributed.