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 KaineOvernight Defense: Trump's move to use military in US sparks backlash | Defense officials take heat | Air Force head calls Floyd's death 'a national tragedy' Pentagon: Esper, Milley 'not aware' of Trump's church photo-op ahead of time Democratic senator plans defense bill amendment to bar using troops against protesters MORE (D-Va.) said the evidence represented a “far cry” from an imminent attack, while Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyHouse committee chair requests immediate briefing on Secret Service's involvement in clearing protesters House Democrat demands answers from Secret Service about role breaking up White House protests Democrats to probe Trump's replacement of top Transportation Dept. watchdog 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) MenendezGovernment watchdog: 'No evidence' Pompeo violated Hatch Act with Kansas trips No time to be selling arms to the Philippines Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation 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 HollenHillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump tweet for 'glorifying violence' | Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged sanctions violations | Senators urge FTC to investigate TikTok child privacy issues Democratic senators urge regulators to investigate Instacart over 'tip baiting' Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers 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 WarrenIt's time to shut down industrial animal farming The Hill's Morning Report - Protesters' defiance met with calls to listen Biden wins DC primary MORE (D-Mass.) said flatly “no.” 

The comments came after Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump: 'I don't think we'll have to' send military to cities House chairman presses Pentagon leaders on use of military against DC protesters Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump's confidence in Esper | 'Angry and appalled' Mattis scorches Trump MORE, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations Ousted watchdog says he told top State aides about Pompeo probe 7 GOP senators slam State Dept for 'slow and inefficient policy' on passports MORE, CIA Director Gina HaspelGina Cheri HaspelObama's 'rule of law' hypocrisy Former CIA chief: Not 'right' for Haspel to applaud at State of the Union Schiff schedules public hearing with US intel chief  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 TrumpFormer employees critique EPA under Trump in new report Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations Virginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests 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 MurphyMissouri state lawmaker sparks backlash by tweeting 'looters deserve to be shot' The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Khanna says President Trump threatening violence against US citizens; Trump terminating relationship with WHO Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day 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 RischDemocrat Paulette Jordan to face incumbent Jim Risch in Idaho Senate race Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation 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 BluntCalls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress Washington prepares for a summer without interns GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill 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 ThornberryTrump stokes backlash with threat to use military against protesters House pays tribute to late Congressman Sam Johnson on the floor Bipartisan Senate panel leaders back fund to deter China 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 MeadowsHouse Judiciary to hear whistleblowers on 'politicization' of Justice Dept under Trump How Trump cleared the park around the White House for church photo op Trump visits historic DC church after protesters cleared with tear gas 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 EngelOusted watchdog says he told top State aides about Pompeo probe Ocasio-Cortez endorses Engel primary challenger Engel presses to speak at NY event: 'If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care' 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 SchiffFlynn urged Russian diplomat to have 'reciprocal' response to Obama sanctions, new transcripts show The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell blocks resolution condemning Trump over treatment of protesters House Democrat demands answers from Secret Service about role breaking up White House protests Pelosi, Schumer say treatment of protesters outside White House 'dishonors every value that faith teaches us' 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.