President Donald Trump and top administration officials are offering different — sometimes contradictory — reasons for the US decision to assassinate top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani earlier this month.
Trump in an interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham Friday claimed that Soleimani was plotting imminent strikes on four US embassies.
When asked in an interview on CNN Sunday about Trump's claim, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said: "I didn't see one with regard to four embassies."
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware in a Sunday interview with Fox News Sunday said that in a classified briefing with the Trump administration on Iran, senators "got less detailed information than President Trump shared with Laura Ingraham."
In seeking to explain why the US killed top Iranian commander in a drone strike earlier in January, President Donald Trump and key administration officials are having a hard time settling on a clear story.
With the assassination potentially among the most consequential decisions of his presidency, Trump has sought to justify it by claimed that Soleimani posed an "imminent" threat and in an interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham on Friday claimed the general was plotting attacks on not just one but four US embassies in the Middle East..
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had earlier also asserted that Soleimani posed an imminent threat, but then, bafflingly, said there was no time frame in which the attacks were expected to occur.
Then, in an interview on CNN Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper wound himself in a tangle of contradictions, saying that he had been presented with no evidence showing that four embassies were being targeted, but nonetheless shared the president's "belief" that four embassies were under threat of attack.
Erfan Kouchari/Tasnim News Agency via AP
Lawmakers say that the information presented to Congress in classified briefings has made the case Soleimani presented an imminent threat was no more compelling.
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons in an interview with Fox News Sunday accused the president of sharing more information on the strike with Ingraham on Friday than he has done with lawmakers representing the American people.
"Frankly in the classified briefing that lasted 75 minutes and had virtually the entire Senate there, we got less detailed information than President Trump shared with Laura Ingraham," Coons told host Chris Wallace.
"So we were told repeatedly that there was reliable intelligence of an imminent threat, that's it."
Wallace later interviewed White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien about why lawmakers were not briefed with information on a specific threat to four US embassies the president felt free to share with millions on TV.
"He is telling Laura Ingraham, our esteemed colleague, but in a 75-minute classified briefing your top national security people never mention this to members of Congress. Why not?" said Wallace.
O'Brien's response echoed Esper's — refusing to confirm that specific intelligence indicated a threat to four embassies while claiming that the president's assertion was nonetheless "consistent" with the intelligence available.
"It is always difficult to know exactly what the targets are but it certainly is consistent with the intelligence to assume they would have hit embassies in at least four countries," O'Brien responded.
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
And further undermining the president's case, NBC News reported Monday that Trump had authorized the assassination of Soleimani seven months ago as one of a number of potential retaliatory actions should Iran escalate its aggression against the US.
NBC, citing numerous officials, said Trump was prepared to kill Iran's top general only if an American life was lost amid escalating tensions. And just after Christmas that occurred, when an Iran-backed militia in Iraq killed a US contractor in a rocket attack on a base in Iraq.
Thus according to this account, the killing was seen as a severe punishment for Iran for the loss of a US citizen's life signaling Iran had crossed a red line, and a warning against future escalations.
It was not a step at that time seen as only being available if imminent threats presented themselves from Iran.
The assassination of Soleimani has set off a chain of events that throw the region in to chaos. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Tehran after the Iranian government, poised for US retaliation for airstrikes it launched on targets in Iraq, accidentally shot down an airliner.
As the consequences of the strike continue to play out in Iran and across the wider world, the Trump administration will continue to face questions about why it can't get its story straight.