On Sunday, United States Secretary of Defense Mike Esper contradicted U.S. President Donald Trump on the motivation for assassinating Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani before walking it back.
The justifications for the assassination remain unclear.
Trump has justified Soleimani’s assassination by saying he posed an imminent threat to Americans and the nation’s embassies. However, Esper denied knowing of any specific threats to American embassies.
Additionally, a classified intelligence briefing held last week intended to provide justification for the killing was publicly criticized by members of Trump’s party.
There is now support for limiting Trump’s ability to order military action abroad.
Warnings of an imminent threat
Immediately following the Jan. 4 assassination of Soleimani, Trump and national security members claimed that the Iranian general was planning “imminent” attacks on American personnel in the Middle East.
However, when pressed for details, members of Trump’s administration would not provide any specifics about those threats.
On January 9, Trump told reporters that Soleimani was planning to “blow up our embassy.” He went on to say that the Iranian general was looking to possibly attack multiple U.S. embassies. In an interview on Fox News the next day, Trump said, “I can reveal that I believe it would’ve been four embassies.”
The Secretary of Defense contradicts Trump
On Sunday, defense secretary Esper appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation, a weekly news show hosted by Margaret Brennan. When Brennan asked if he knew of tangible evidence of a threat, Esper replied, “I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies.” Instead, he said, he believed the embassies were “probably” a threat, as they are “the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
Esper continued a Sunday press tour by appearing on CNN’s State of the Union, hosted by Jake Tapper. Esper said there was intelligence that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was being targeted and that he agreed with Trump that the Iranians “could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”
‘Insulting’ and ‘un-American; intelligence briefings
On Jan. 8, members of Trump’s administration gave briefings to members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate to explain the intelligence that led to Soleimani’s assassination. The briefings were not received well.
Republican Senator Mike Lee stated the classified intelligence briefing was “the worst briefing I’ve seen … in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.” Lee went into the meeting wanting specifics to justify the military action but they “never got to the details.” He said they were given the “un-American” direction to not “debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran.”
According to Lee and Republican Senator Rand Paul, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 was given as an “absurd” and insulting justification for the killing.
A range of Democrats also criticized the briefing, including Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Gerry Connolly, and Eliot Engel. Engel said the administration essentially told those in the briefing to just “Trust us.”
The Gang of Eight
During his Face the Nation interview on Sunday, Esper asserted that the top members of advised against giving greater details in the House and Senate intelligence briefings.
The Gang of Eight refers to a bipartisan committee made up of four Congressional members among both Democrats and Republicans. They include the chair and ranking members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate Select Committees on Intelligence and the four leaders of each chamber.
Democratic members of the Gang of Eight said they were not briefed prior to the military action that led to Soleimani’s death. However, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is not among the Gang of Eight, was one of the few members of the House or Senate to be briefed on the targeted killing of Soleimani before it occurred.
Trump similarly told Graham about the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before that action was taken, but did not alert the Gang of Eight.
A bipartisan limitation on Trump
On Thursday, by a vote of 224-194, the House passed a resolution to limit Trump’s military action in Iran. The resolution was supported mostly by Democrats, though three prominent Republicans voted for it as well.
The resolution seeks “to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran” without specific authorization from Congress. It still must be voted on by the Senate.
A separate bill is also being co-sponsored by Lee and Sen. Bernie Sanders that would require congressional approval before any money was spent on military action in Iran.
Sanders, who is campaigning to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020, was also critical of the intelligence briefing, stating, “They are justifying the assassination of Qasem Soleimani by claiming that he was planning ‘imminent attacks’ on hundreds of Americans in the region and yet they produced no evidence that would justify this claim, not even in a classified setting.”