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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 KaineSenate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers Sweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force MORE (D-Va.) said the evidence represented a “far cry” from an imminent attack, while Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyGOP downplays Jan. 6 violence: Like a 'normal tourist visit' Biden offers traditional address in eerie setting Overnight Defense: Top Pentagon nominee advances after Harris casts tie-breaker | Air Force general charged with sexual assault first to face court-martial | House passes bill to limit Saudi arms sales 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) MenendezTensions mount among Democrats over US-Israel policy Senate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers Democrats reintroduce legislation to ban 'ghost guns' 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 HollenTensions mount among Democrats over US-Israel policy Financial market transactions should not be taxed or restricted Van Hollen says members should stand with Cheney on election claims 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 WarrenSanders: Netanyahu has cultivated 'racist nationalism' Tensions mount among Democrats over US-Israel policy Warren says Republican Party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' MORE (D-Mass.) said flatly “no.” 

The comments came after Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech Trump's Navy secretary spent over M on travel during pandemic: report Court declines to dismiss Amazon challenge against JEDI decision MORE, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoUS Olympic Committee urges Congress not to boycott Games in China Pompeo on CIA recruitment: We can't risk national security to appease 'liberal, woke agenda' DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates 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 TrumpVirginia GOP gubernatorial nominee acknowledges Biden was 'legitimately' elected Biden meets with DACA recipients on immigration reform Overnight Health Care: States begin lifting mask mandates after new CDC guidance | Walmart, Trader Joe's will no longer require customers to wear masks | CDC finds Pfizer, Moderna vaccines 94 percent effective in health workers 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 MurphySweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw Kabul attack spurs fears over fate of Afghan women as US exits Sen. Murphy calls for Yemen's Houthis to accept ceasefire following trip to Middle East 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 RischAny reduction in Energy Department's cybersecurity resources a mistake Biden cancels military-funded border wall projects Senate panel greenlights sweeping China policy bill 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 BluntMissouri Republicans move to block Greitens in key Senate race On The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week 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 MeadowsBoehner finally calls it as he sees it Stephen Miller launching group to challenge Democrats' policies through lawsuits A year with the coronavirus: How we got here 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 EngelLawmakers on hot mic joke 'aisle hog' Engel absent from Biden address: 'He'd wait all day' Bowman to deliver progressive response to Biden's speech to Congress Liberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges 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 SchiffLone wolf actors post greatest domestic terror threat, FBI, DHS conclude State calls for Azerbaijan to pull back forces from Armenia border DNC plans to project image calling GOP 'party of Trump' on his DC hotel after Cheney vote 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 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill 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.