Defense

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 Kaine (D-Va.) said the evidence represented a “far cry” from an imminent attack, while Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) called the briefing “sophomoric.” 

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

Sen. Robert Menendez (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 Hollen (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 Warren (D-Mass.) said flatly “no.” 

The comments came after Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel 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 Trump confirmed no Americans were killed in Tuesday’s attack and said Iran appeared to be “standing down.”

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 Murphy (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 Risch (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 Blunt (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 Thornberry (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 Meadows (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.

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 Engel (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 Schiff (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 Schumer (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.

Tags Adam Schiff Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Chris Van Hollen Donald Trump Eliot Engel Elizabeth Warren Gerry Connolly Gina Haspel Iran Iraq Jim Risch Mac Thornberry Mark Esper Mark Meadows Mike Pompeo Robert Menendez Roy Blunt Tim Kaine

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