Overnight Defense: Trump says it ‘doesn’t really matter’ if Soleimani was plotting imminent attack | Pompeo won’t testify before House panel on Iran | Investigation finds Pensacola base shooting was terrorism
Happy Monday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, 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: The Trump administration’s story on why it killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani took a new turn Monday as President Trump asserted it “doesn’t really matter” if the original explanation holds.
In a tweet, Trump said it didn’t matter if Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the United States because of his “horrible past.”
Trump also claimed his national security team agreed on the imminent threat posed by Soleimani that led to the decision to kill him, despite remarks from Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday that undercut Trump’s claim that the Iranian general was planning to target four American embassies.
“The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was ’eminent’ or not, & was my team in agreement,” Trump tweeted Monday morning, incorrectly spelling imminent.
“The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!” the president continued.
Trump later accused the media and Democrats of “trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy, only because I did what should have been done for 20 years.”
Over the weekend: On Sunday, Esper said on “Face the Nation” that he “didn’t see” specific intelligence that Iran was planning to strike four U.S. embassies, as Trump alleged in a Fox News interview on Friday.
Still, Esper described Trump’s claim as a belief that he shared.
“What the president said was he believed there probably and could’ve been attacks against additional embassies,” Esper said. “I shared that view. I know other members of the national security team shared that view. That’s why I deployed thousands of American paratroopers to the Middle East to reinforce our embassy in Baghdad and other sites throughout the region.”
He added that Trump did not cite a “specific piece of evidence.”
“Are you saying there wasn’t one?” host Margaret Brennan asked.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper responded. “What I’m saying is I share the president’s view.”
In the House: As questions about the Soleimani strike continue to swirl, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Iran on Tuesday.
But a key witness won’t appear: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“I’m disappointed and frustrated that Secretary Pompeo will not appear before the committee tomorrow,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Monday.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on Pompeo’s decision not to testify.
Pompeo is on a trip to California until Wednesday, according to a Thursday statement from the State Department.
“Each passing day raises new questions about the strike that killed General Soleimani,” Engel added. “Was there really an imminent threat? Was it part of a larger operation? What was the legal justification? What is the path forward? With the wildly muddled explanations coming from the administration, the secretary should welcome the opportunity to make the case and answer questions before the American people. The committee expects to hear from him soon.”
The committee invited Pompeo to testify last Tuesday, saying in a letter that his participation would “provide the committee with valuable context as it considers legislation related to the use of military force, as well as strategy and aims of U.S. policy in Iraq and the broader Middle East.”
In the Senate: The Senate could vote this week on a war power resolution aimed at blocking Trump from taking military action against Iran, assuming an impeachment trial doesn’t start before it gets a chance to.
Over the weekend, The Hill’s Jordain Carney took a look at Democrats’ scramble to get a majority of votes on the resolution.
A resolution from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) can come to the Senate floor as soon as Tuesday morning, and he has been trying to win over the four GOP votes needed, in addition to every Democratic senator, to get to 51 votes.
“Republicans are giving us some good suggestions, some Democrats too, about things they would like to see,” Kaine said, adding that he was “in dialogue with a number of” GOP senators.
Kaine’s resolution, as originally introduced, would call for the U.S. to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities against the Islamic Republic of Iran” within 30 days unless it was responding to an “imminent” threat.
PENSACOLA SHOOTING FOUND TO BE TERRORISM: Attorney General William Barr announced Monday the December shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., that left three dead was an “act of terrorism” and that the shooter was motivated by “jihadist ideology.”
Barr made the comments while delivering the results from a monthlong investigation into the attack, which was carried out by Royal Saudi Air Force Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. Alshamrani, who was shot and killed by police during the attack, was enrolled in a program to train allied pilots.
“The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology,” Barr said. “During the course of the investigation, we learned that the shooter posted a message on social media on Sept. 11 of last year that said: ‘the countdown has begun.’ Over Thanksgiving weekend, he visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. He also posted other anti-American, anti-Israeli, and jihadi messages on social media, and did so two hours before his attack at the naval base.”
21 Saudis kicked out: The investigation found no evidence that other members of the Saudi military had knowledge of Alshamrani’s intentions. But Barr said Saudi Arabia determined that 21 military members training in the U.S. would be unenrolled and returned home over other revelations produced by the probe.
Barr said that 17 of those individuals had social media accounts that included jihadi or anti-American sentiments. He added that 15 also had “some kind of contact” with child pornography and that Saudi Arabia found these discoveries “unbecoming” of an officer in its military.
Independent U.S. attorney’s offices determined that none of the cases involving other Saudi military members would warrant federal prosecution, he added.
Tech angle: In an unusual plea to a tech company, Barr called on Apple to help investigators unlock the shooter’s phones, saying that it was important for investigators to “know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died.”
“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause,” he said, noting that Apple had yet to give any substantive assistance. “We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks.”
Apple told The Washington Post in a statement that it had assisted an FBI investigation by providing relevant data in its cloud storage. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill.
IMPEACHMENT LATEST: Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Monday he expects the opening arguments for Trump’s impeachment trial to start next Tuesday.
Asked if Tuesday, Jan. 21, was the “likely” start date, he told reporters that is “what it’s feeling like.”
“We’d actually be glued to our chair starting Tuesday, I think,” he said, asked if he was talking about the opening arguments.
The timeline comes as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is expected to send the articles to the Senate this week, ending a weeks-long standoff with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Pelosi has not said when she will send the articles. House Democrats are expected to discuss it at their Tuesday caucus meeting, potentially allowing a trial to start as soon as Wednesday.
Under the Senate’s impeachment rules the trial starts the day after Pelosi transmits the articles, unless that day is a Sunday.
Cornyn noted that once the two articles are sent to the Senate, the chamber will likely take a few days to take care of housekeeping matters, including swearing in Chief Justice John Roberts and all senators, sending a summons to Trump’s team and passing a resolution establishing the trial rules.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will have a hearing on Iran with testimony from outside experts at 10 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2172. https://bit.ly/2Nos3IT
— The Hill: Pentagon IDs two soldiers killed in Afghanistan
— The Hill: Congress struggles on rules for cyber warfare with Iran
— The Hill: Iran: Trump dishonored Farsi language with tweet
— The Hill: Iranian police shoot at protesters, video shows
— The Hill: Opinion: It’s time for the Democratic candidates to talk more about national security
— The Hill: Opinion: The good, the bad, and the ugly of killing of Qassem Soleimani
— Associated Press: US troops in Iraq got warning hours before Iranian attack
— The Wall Street Journal: U.S. warns Iraq It risks losing access to key bank account if troops told to leave
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