On Monday, Trump added to the uncertainty on Twitter.
“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,” he said.
Trump said the answer to both those questions was yes — but added “it doesn’t really matter.”
The tweet came hours after an NBC News report alleging Trump authorized the killing of Soleimani seven months ago. The report, which cited five current and former Trump administration officials, said the directive came in June 2019 when Iran shot down a U.S. drone.
That report contradicts recent messaging from the president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom have said there was an “imminent threat” that prompted the general’s killing.
“It’s hard to know what the real reason is because we’ve heard several different reasons provided to both the public and to Congress,” said Jon Lindsay, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Lindsay said the wide range of different explanations, which are often contradictory, have made people further doubt whether Trump’s actions were justified.
Here’s a look at reasoning given for Soleimani’s killing, and how it has changed in the past weeks.
On Jan. 2, directly after the Baghdad drone strike, the U.S. Department of Defense said in a statement that the decision was made to protect U.S. personnel aboard.
“At the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani,” it said.
The statement added that the general was actively planning to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and in the Middle East.
Hours later, Pompeo tweeted that Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani came “in response to imminent threats to American lives.”
Also on Jan. 3, Trump says the general “should have been taken out many years ago!” on Twitter.
During an announcement, Trump once again says the Iranian general was planning “imminent and sinister attacks” against Americans.
While speaking to reporters in Washington, Trump was pressed again on what information he had that prompted the directive.
“Well, number one, I knew the past. His past was horrible. He was a terrorist,” Trump said.
“He was a — so designated by President Obama, as you know. And he wasn’t even supposed to be outside of his own country; he was. So, right there.”
Trump added that Soleimani was watched closely by the U.S. ahead of his killing, but once again did not provide details about what, exactly, officials learned.
“We’ve been following him for a long time. And we followed his path for those three days. And they were not good stops. We didn’t like where he was stopping. They were not good stops. We saved a lot of lives.”
Also on Tuesday, U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that Soleimani’s “time was due.”
“This is no innocent man,” Esper said. “This is a terrorist leader of a terrorist organization, and his time was due.”
Esper added that there was a threat being “orchestrated by Soleimani,” and it would be “only a matter of days, certainly no more than weeks.”
On Friday, amid scrutiny from Congress that Trump officials did not provide sufficient detail or justification in briefings, Pompeo and Trump faced increased questions on exactly what the imminent threats entailed.
Pompeo, while announcing new sanctions against Iran, said: “I don’t know exactly which minute. We don’t know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear. Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests and those attacks were imminent.”
Hours later, Trump said in an interview with Fox News that Iranian militant had planned attacks on four U.S. embassies.
“We will tell you that probably it was going to be the embassy in Baghdad,” Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies.”
On Sunday, Esper said that he had seen no hard evidence that four American embassies had been under possible threat when Trump authorized the targeting Soleimani.
“The president didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence, he says he probably, he believed…,” Esper said. “I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies.”
Takeaways on Trump administration’s justifications
Lindsay said changing statements from not only Trump, but also unclear remarks from Esper and Pompeo suggest there was confusion and disagreement internally.
“This story of imminence has come out, but not come out in any unified way, which suggests that whatever the legal justification is, there’s been some kind of discussion and debate internally,” he said, noting it reveals a “lack of organization and agreement” within the administration.
Rob Goodman, an assistant politics professor at Ryerson University, added the differing messages also point to the fact that claims of an imminent threat against Americans were used as justification in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration.
At the time, Goodman explained there was less scrutiny about the claim than there is now. He noted this may be because Americans are increasingly war-weary.
“I think the reason they’ve had so much trouble making the case for it and they’ve had to resort to really specious sounding claims about threats is because it’s a case that mostly the public doesn’t want to go along with,” he said.
Goodman noted fixing messaging around the Soleimani killing is not necessarily enough — the issue, he said, points to a deeper problem with Trump’s handling of foreign policy.
“It sounds as if no one in the Pentagon or the U.S. armed forces ever imagined that the president would actually select the option of escalating conflict to this height. And the fact that he did it sent a lot of people scrambling,” Goodman said.
“I just think that’s no way to make a foreign policy.”
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