WASHINGTON - After asserting for more than a week that Gen. Qasem Soleimani posed an imminent threat to Americans when he was killed in a drone strike, President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr now say that whether the threat was immediate or not, the president had the right to act.
When Trump announced Jan. 3 that he had ordered the drone strike that killed Soleimani, who ran the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, he said the general was "plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel."
Top administration officials have stood by the assertion that the threat was immediate and have defended the intelligence that led them to that conclusion. But Trump said in a tweet Monday that the question of whether or not the strike was imminent "really didn't matter," and the nation's top law enforcement official said the issue was "something of a red herring."
Critics on Capitol Hill, who have questioned the strategy behind the strike and the decision not to notify Congress, say whether or not Soleimani posed an imminent threat is crucial.
"Why is that important?" House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., asked at a hearing on the strike Tuesday. "Because in the case of an imminent threat, the president has authority under Article 2 of the Constitution to protect Americans."
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Though the president said the reasoning has been "totally consistent," Engel mocked the administration's shifting justifications for the attack in his opening statement at the hearing, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is in California, declined to attend.
"We heard the strike went forward because Soleimani did so many bad things in the past and was plotting for the future. Then, when that didn't work, they went back to an imminent threat, but we didn't know when or where it would take place," Engel said. "Next, it was going to be an embassy attack. Then four embassies were going to be attacked. Then maybe it wasn't four embassies."
Engel said he had wanted Pompeo to testify "because I think the administration is not being straight with the country or the Congress." He said he was sending a letter to Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper "demanding that they produce information on the legal basis for the strike that took out Soleimani."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has introduced a resolution that would limit Trump's ability to take further military action against Iran without congressional approval. The House passed a similar resolution last week, but it did not carry the force of law.
Iran retaliated for Soleimani's killing by firing a barrage of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. The attacks did not result in any casualties and Iran has indicated there would not be further military retaliation but some fear the regime could take further action through proxy attacks or cyberwarfare.
Amid the heightened tensions, Iran said it mistook a Ukrainian passenger plane for an incoming missile and shot the plane down. The regime has faced a wave of protests since it took responsibility for downing the flight, which included 83 Iranians among the 176 people on board, after denying any role in the tragedy for days. On Tuesday, Iran announced it had arrested "some individuals" in connection with the incident.
The Trump administration has painted the protests as proof that the regime does not have popular support and that its "maximum pressure" campaign on the government is working.
Here's a look at how Trump, Barr, Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have tried to justify the strike:
Trump: Imminent threat 'doesn't matter'
After continued criticism for a lack of specifics on the threat posed by Soleimani, Trump said Friday that Iran's top general was plotting attacks on four U.S. embassies.
Some lawmakers who were briefed on the intelligence said they had not been informed of such a plot. Esper said Sunday that the president was not referring to a "tangible" threat, but rather an attack they thought was probable.
On Monday, Trump argued the debate over the immediacy of the threat was irrelevant because Soleimani's record provided all the justification he needed.
"The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was 'imminent' or not, & was my team in agreement," Trump tweeted on Monday. "The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn't really matter because of his horrible past!"
As the head of the Quds Force, Soleimani directed Iran's support for militias loyal to Tehran throughout the Middle East. Such militias have played roles in bloody conflicts in Syria and Yemen. In Iraq, Soleimani helped trained militants to attack U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The State Department blames Iran for the deaths of more than 600 U.S. service members during the ensuing occupation.
U.S. officials have also blamed Soleimani for the death of an American contractor, who was killed in Iraq on Dec. 27 by a rocket attack from an Iran-backed militia, and the Dec. 31 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
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The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was "imminent" or not, & was my team in agreement. The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn't really matter because of his horrible past!
- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2020
Barr: Strike 're-established deterrence'
The attorney general was asked during a news conference Monday whether he was concerned the president may have exceeded his authority by not consulting Congress about what could be considered an act of war.
"The Department of Justice was consulted and frankly I don't think it was a close call," Barr replied. "The president clearly had the authority to act as he did," he said, because "ongoing attacks were being planned and orchestrated by Soleimani" with the "avowed purpose of driving us out of the Middle East."
In addition to being a "legitimate act of self-defense," Barr said killing Soleimani "re-established deterrence." He said the attack was not meant to start a was but to dissuade Iran from future aggression. He stressed that there had only been "a very brief window of time to carry out the attack."
"Our ability to deter attacks had obviously broken down," Barr said. "The Iranians had been given a number of red lines and were crossing those lines. They obviously felt that they could attack us, and continue these escalating attacks, with impunity.
"I believe there was intelligence of imminent attack, but I do believe that this concept of imminence is something of a red herring," Barr said. "I think when you're dealing with a situation where you already have attacks underway, you know there is a campaign that involves repeated attacks on American targets, I don't think there's a requirement frankly for knowing the exact time and place of the next attack. And that certainly was the position of the Obama administration when it droned leaders of terrorist organizations."
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Pompeo: General posed 'an increasing threat'
Since Soleimani's death, the secretary of state has repeatedly stressed that the Iranian general posed an imminent threat to Americans and U.S. interests and he repeated that belief Monday.
But, like Trump, he said the attack on Soleimani was justified by his past crimes and, like Barr, he argued it was a necessary response to Iran's past attacks in order to deter ones in the future.
"We can dance around the maypole on the word 'imminent,'" Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News. "What we could see was that there was an increasing threat from the activities of Qasem Soleimani," who he said has "been on the American radar screen for an awfully long time."
Earlier Monday, Pompeo delivered a speech at Stanford University titled, "The Restoration of Deterrence: The Iranian Example."
"There is a bigger strategy to this," Pompeo said. "President Trump and those of us in his national security team are re-establishing deterrence - real deterrence ‒ against the Islamic Republic."
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Esper: Attack coming 'within a matter of days'
After Soleimani's death, a Pentagon statement said the "strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans."
On Sunday, Esper told CNN that the world was safer without Soleimani because he was the "world's foremost terrorist" with "the blood of hundreds of American service members on his hands."
"Secondly, we restored deterrence with Iran. And we did so without American casualties," he said. "And, third, we reassured our friends and allies in the region that the United States will stand up and defend our interests."
On ABC News "This Week," Esper also said the intelligence showed Soleimani posed an immediate threat, though he did not offer specifics.
"We had information that there was going to be an attack within a matter of days that would be broad in scale," he said.
In regard to Trump's claim that four U.S. embassies were being targeted, Esper said, "There was a reference in this exquisite intelligence to an attack on the United States Embassy in Baghdad.
"What the president said was he believed that it probably, and could have been, attacks against additional embassies. I shared that view," he said, though he admitted he had not seen concrete evidence "with regard to four embassies."
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Soleimani killing: Trump team now says imminent threat doesn't matter