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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 Kaine'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack 7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics Robert E. Lee statue removed from US Capitol MORE (D-Va.) said the evidence represented a “far cry” from an imminent attack, while Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyLIVE COVERAGE: House votes to impeach Trump after Capitol insurrection Trump era bows out with scorched-earth drama in divided GOP This week: Congress races to wrap work for the year 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) MenendezYear-end deal creates American Latino, women's history museums Lawmakers call for including creation of Latino, women's history museums in year-end spending deal Trump offered 0 million to terrorism victims to save Sudan-Israel deal  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 Hollen'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack Trump administration finalizes rollback of migratory bird protections David Sirota: Democrats gave away leverage in forcing vote on ,000 checks 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 WarrenPorter loses seat on House panel overseeing financial sector OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Nine, including former Michigan governor, charged over Flint water crisis | Regulator finalizes rule forcing banks to serve oil, gun companies | Trump admin adds hurdle to increase efficiency standards for furnaces, water heaters DeVos mulled unilateral student loan forgiveness as COVID-19 wracked economy: memo MORE (D-Mass.) said flatly “no.” 

The comments came after Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperBiden needs to fill the leadership gaps on Day One US meets troops reduction goal in Afghanistan, Iraq Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoBiden should expand contact between US and Taiwanese officials On The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits MORE, CIA Director Gina HaspelGina Cheri HaspelCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Biden announces veteran diplomat William Burns as nominee for CIA director Meet Biden's pick to lead the US intelligence community 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 TrumpFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Section 230 worked after the insurrection, but not before: How to regulate social media 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 MurphySenate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster Democratic senator: COVID-19 relief is priority over impeachment trial Lawmakers push back on late Trump terror designation for Yemen's Houthis 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 RischJim Elroy RischOvernight Defense: US sanctions NATO ally Turkey over Russian defense system | Veterans groups, top Democrats call for Wilkie's resignation | Gingrich, other Trump loyalists named to Pentagon board Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results 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 BluntUS Chamber of Commerce to stop supporting some lawmakers following the Capitol riots Senate to be briefed on inauguration security after Capitol attack This week: Democrats barrel toward Trump impeachment after Capitol attack 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 ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto 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 MeadowsAgency official says Capitol riot hit close to home for former Transportation secretary Chao Republicans wrestle over removing Trump Pressure grows on Trump to leave 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 EngelState Department sets up new bureau for cybersecurity and emerging technologies How Congress dismissed women's empowerment 2020: A year in photos 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 SchiffSunday shows preview: Washington prepares for an inauguration and impeachment; coronavirus surges across the US What our kids should know after the Capitol Hill riot  Pelosi names 9 impeachment managers 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 SchumerBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Democrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial 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.