Overnight Defense: Pompeo defends intel on Soleimani strike | Iraqi PM tells US to start working on plan for withdrawal | Paul, Graham feud deepens over Trump war powers
Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday defended the decision to authorize a drone strike to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, saying intelligence suggested that he was plotting a “large-scale” attack that threatened U.S. embassies, among other American facilities.
Pressed by reporters at a press conference in the White House briefing room, Pompeo said that the Trump administration didn’t know precisely when or where the attack would occur, but insisted it was imminent.
“We had specific information on an imminent threat and the threat stream included attacks on U.S. embassies. Period, full stop,” Pompeo told reporters.
A rare briefing: Pompeo was grilled during the rare press briefing on the nature of the threat to Americans posed by Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike last Thursday.
Pompeo has previously said the Iranian general was preparing attacks that posed an “imminent” threat to U.S. lives without going into precise detail.
Trump administration officials have remained tight-lipped about the details surrounding the alleged plots, citing the protection of intelligence sources and methods.
Which is it? At times, officials have appeared to oscillate between describing the strike as a response to Soleimani’s past destructive behavior and an effort to deter future attacks.
Soleimani — who commanded Iran’s Quds Force, a designated terrorist organization — has been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. service members in the Middle East over the years.
Pompeo’s remarks came after Trump suggested Thursday that Soleimani was plotting attacks against U.S. embassies while also blaming him for an assault by Iran-backed protesters on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad prior to his death.
“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad,” Trump told a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally in Ohio Thursday evening. “We stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold.”
Earlier Thursday, Trump told reporters that Soleimani was “looking to blow up” the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Congress not happy with explanation: Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers, most of them Democrats, have expressed dissatisfaction with classified briefings by the administration to explain the decision to strike Soleimani.
Still iffy on details: Pompeo has described the Trump administration’s decision to authorize a strike against Soleimani as a defensive measure aimed at deterring attacks the Iranian general was plotting that posed an “imminent” threat to American interests.
But Pompeo said Thursday night he didn’t know the precise time or place of where those attacks would take place.
“There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani, and we don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” Pompeo told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in an interview Thursday night.
On Friday, Pompeo maintained that his remarks had been consistent.
“I don’t know exactly which minute. We don’t know exactly which day it would have been executed. But it was very clear: Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests and those attacks were imminent,” Pompeo told reporters.
Pompeo said Soleimani was plotting attacks that threatened American facilities, including U.S. embassies and military bases, throughout the Middle East.
Asked later about his definition of “imminent,” Pompeo said the plots would have been carried out had the U.S. not authorized the strike on Soleimani, defending Trump for making the “right call.”
And Iraq wants US out: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi on Friday called on Pompeo to send a delegation to Iraq to “prepare a mechanism” for U.S. troop withdrawal from the country, according to a Friday statement, The Associated Press reported.
The request was made in a Thursday phone call between Pompeo and Abdul-Mahdi, according to a statement from the office of the Iraqi caretaker prime minister, the AP reported. It said Pompeo called the Iraqi official.
Iraq’s parliament voted earlier this week to expel the U.S. military from the country after the airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The Iraqi leader asked Pompeo to “send delegates to Iraq to prepare a mechanism to carry out the parliament’s resolution regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq,” according to the statement, the AP reported.
NAVY SAYS RUSSIAN WARSHIP ‘AGGRESSIVELY APPROACHED” US VESSEL: A Russian warship “aggressively approached” a U.S. Naval destroyer in the North Arabian Sea on Thursday, Navy officials said Friday.
“While conducting routine operations in the North Arabian Sea, USS Farragut was aggressively approached by a Russian Navy ship,” the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which heads naval operations in the Middle East, said in a statement.
“Farragut sounded five short blasts, the international maritime signal for danger of a collision, and requested the Russian ship alter course in accordance with international rules of the road,” the Navy added. “The Russian ship initially refused but ultimately altered course.”
What happened: The Russian ship’s delay to take action and alter course, the statement added, increased the risk of collision, CNN reported Friday.
A pair of defense officials told the network that the Russian ship came within 180 feet of the Farragut. They also said that it changed course after the Farragut initiated bridge-to-bridge communications.
Repeated moves: The incident follows a similar incident in June when a U.S. ship had to perform an emergency maneuver to avoid hitting a Russian vessel. The Navy has described both incidences as provocative and dangerous by Russia.
GRAHAM, PAUL RIFT DEEPENS OVER TRUMP’S WAR POWERS: A high-profile debate over President Trump’s war powers is fueling a feud among Senate Republicans.
The fallout from a closed-door briefing on the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani has put a spotlight on the divisions among two of President Trump’s biggest congressional allies: Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“If I had an eye problem, I would go to him. If I had a constitutional question, he would be the last guy I would pick,” Graham said on Thursday when asked about Paul, who is an ophthalmologist.
What deepened the disagreement: The two lawmakers are butting heads after Paul and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) emerged from Wednesday’s classified briefing deeply critical of what they characterized as a warning from senior administration officials against debating Trump’s war authority and their use of a 2002 authorization as the basis for last week’s drone strike in Baghdad that killed Soleimani.
Appearing together before a gaggle of reporters and TV cameras, Lee called the presentation “the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue.”
Paul added that he found the briefing “less than satisfying” and that it was “absurd” and “insane” to use the 2002 Iraq war authorization as the basis for an air strike against an Iranian general.
“I see no way in the world you could logically argue that an authorization to have war with Saddam Hussein has anything to with having war with people currently in Iraq,” Paul told reporters.
The anti-intervention stance aligns Paul and Lee with Trump’s 2016 campaign, when he consistently struck an isolationist tone and pledged to end the country’s “forever” wars.
But Paul and Lee are now at odds with most of their GOP colleagues on matters of military authority, making them outliers in the caucus. Most Senate Republicans hold views in line with the party’s foreign policy establishment, and Graham has in many ways taken over the mantle of top hawk following the death of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Earlier: Graham fired the opening shot Wednesday when he said he thought Paul and Lee were “overreacting” with their criticism of the administration’s stance on the war powers debate.
“I’m going to let people know that at this moment in time to play this game with the War Powers Act … whether you mean to or not, you’re empowering the enemy,” Graham told reporters.
That prompted Paul, during a CNN interview, to argue that Graham hasn’t “even read the history of the Constitution.”
— The Hill: Trump says Soleimani was plotting attacks on four US embassies
— The Hill: Pompeo offers Ukraine full assistance in investigation of downed plane
— The Hill: Khanna: Timing of Iran bill being weighed against getting bigger majority
— The Hill: US launched second attack targeting Iranian official in Yemen: report
— The Hill: Dem senator: ‘Blowing smoke’ to say Iranian general posed an imminent threat
— The Hill: Green groups raise alarms about alleged Pentagon incineration of ‘forever chemicals’