The Trump administration has struggled to justify the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani from the jump. And now the one justification presented publicly by President Donald Trump has utterly fallen apart.
Trump has said in recent days that Soleimani was planning to "blow up" the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and also that he was going after "four embassies."
But Defense Secretary Mark Esper revealed on talk shows Sunday that the idea that Soleimani was about to attack four embassies wasn't based on intelligence. Instead, he said it was simply something Trump and others "believed" to be the case.
Here's the relevant transcript from CBS's "Face the Nation":
Esper: Well, what the president said was he believed that it probably and could have been attacks against additional embassies. I shared that view. I know other members of 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.
Margaret Brennan: "Probably" and "could have been." That is -- that sounds more like an assessment than a specific, tangible threat with a decisive piece of intelligence.
Esper: Well, the president didn't say there was a tangible -- he didn't cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said is he probably -- he believed, could have been --
Brennan: Are you saying there wasn't one?
Esper: I didn't see one with regard to four embassies. What I'm saying is, I share the president's view that probably -- my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies.
Esper added on CNN's "State of the Union," "But what the president said was, he believed. He said [Soleimani] could have been targeting -- all those things that I believe as well, that the national security team believes as well." Esper added when pressed, "What the president said was, he believed it probably could have been. He didn't cite intelligence."
Except that Trump didn't always couch this as his belief. He did in a Fox News interview, but at more than one other point, he talked about it as though it was a conclusion based on intelligence.
"Soleimani was actively planning new attacks, and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad," Trump said at a rally in Toledo, Ohio.
He added in a local TV interview with WTVG: "Plus, he was going after -- in our opinion, our very intelligent opinion, he was going after our embassies, and things could have happened."
"He was looking very seriously" is not based on a suspicion; it's something you say when you are stating what is believed to be a known fact. And although Trump couched the second quote as "in our opinion," he then cited "our very intelligent opinion." Even if you believe "intelligent" doesn't quite mean Trump was saying this was in the intelligence, it suggests that it was based on something more than inference and guesswork.
And indeed, even in the Fox News interview Trump said, "I can reveal I believe it probably would've been four embassies." The "I believe" could be read as his suspicion, but "I can reveal" sure suggests this is based upon actual information.
There is also the fact that Trump specifically cited "four embassies." If this was indeed just a guess that wasn't actually based on intelligence, why the specific number? That number had to have come from somewhere.
Another big point is something else Esper revealed on "Face the Nation." He confirmed that there was intelligence to support the idea that Soleimani was preparing to attack one U.S. embassy -- the one in Baghdad which supporters of a pro-Iranian militia briefly stormed earlier this month.
"There was a reference in this exquisite intelligence to an attack on the United States Embassy in Baghdad," Esper said. "That information was shared with the Gang of Eight. All that exceptional intelligence shared with the Gang of Eight, not the broader membership of the Congress."
But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated at a briefing last week that this information -- if not the presumed attack on four embassies -- was indeed shared in briefing all of Congress.
Here's his exchange with NBC News's Peter Alexander:
Alexander: Today, at the podium, you said that the imminent threat was a threat to U.S. embassies. You didn't know precisely when or where. Last night, the president said it was a threat to embassies, including to our Baghdad embassy. Why can you say that here, and the president could say it at a rally in Toledo, but no one said it to lawmakers behind closed doors in a classified setting, as multiple senators have since said?
Pompeo: We did.
Pompeo also indicated that those attacks on embassies were indeed part of the "imminent" attacks that the administration used to justify the Soleimani strike.
"We had specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats included attacks on U.S. embassies," Pompeo said. "Period. Full stop."
One is that Esper now says he hasn't seen intelligence on the threat to multiple embassies, whereas Pompeo said the "specific information" about imminent threats included threats to those embassies.
And the second is that, even if we're to accept that Pompeo was speaking loosely and that the intelligence was really just about the one U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Esper said that information wasn't shared with "the broader membership of the Congress," but only with the Gang of Eight. Pompeo, in contrast, said "we did" when asked if the information about attacks on embassies was shared in that wider briefing. He later deflected when asked to reconfirm, but he did confirm.
In other words: It's a mess. Asked to produce actual intelligence justifying the claims of an "imminent" attack by Soleimani, Trump has instead provided his own guesses. He has repeatedly suggested that this was based on actual intelligence, even though Esper now says it wasn't. And in the process of explaining Trump's comment, Pompeo suggested that the attacks on multiple embassies were in the intelligence shared with Congress. Esper now says not only that the multiple embassies aren't in the intelligence, but that even the information that Soleimani was prepared to strike one of them wasn't shared with the broader Congress.
What's the next explanation?