For six days after Qasem Soleimani’s death, the Trump administration assured us he was behind “imminent” attacks but declined to offer details. Then Trump came out Thursday and just said it: Soleimani was going to “blow up” a U.S. embassy.
There have to be real questions about the accuracy of that claim.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced a package of new Iran sanctions Friday, but unanswered questions about the strike on Soleimani loomed over it.
Particularly at issue was Trump’s claim about Soleimani targeting embassies. As I noted when he said it, that was very difficult to square with bipartisan claims that there was no real new evidence provided to members of Congress at a briefing Wednesday. And indeed, some Democratic senators said after Trump’s comments that the briefings included no such evidence about embassies. If that was the intelligence, how in the world would 1) it not be shared or 2) members not remember it?
Pompeo’s explanation doesn’t quite clear things up.
NBC News’s Peter Alexander asked him about the claims by the senators, and Pompeo initially seemed to directly dispute their claims and confirm that the briefing included the embassies:
The answer seems clear enough, but then Alexander pressed him on it, making sure the embassy threat was included in the briefing.
At that point, Pompeo became less explicit and reverted to talking more broadly about how the administration shared information on the imminent threats:
It wasn’t a complete walkback, but given Pompeo’s initial response, it would have been easy to just confirm it. That Pompeo chose not to raises eyebrows — especially next to the claims of Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) that they weren’t briefed on the embassy threat.
Sen. Chris Coons on President Trump claiming Soleimani plotted to blow up the US Embassy: “It’s striking that that specific detail is now being offered up by President Trump when 100 US senators were gathered yesterday in a classified briefing.” pic.twitter.com/IqEQ83kHgZ
History also plays a part here. Trump is known for falsehoods and misleading statements, uttering more than 15,000 as president. And this isn’t even the first time there are questions about whether he has accurately recounted the circumstances behind the death of a major adversary.
In October, after his administration took out the founder of the Islamic State militant group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Trump claimed in a vivid news conference that Baghdadi died “whimpering.” Trump said this despite there being very legitimate questions about how he knew that and whether it was even knowable. The New York Times labeled it “The ‘Whimpering’ Terrorist Only Trump Seems to Have Heard.” It seemed fair to ask whether Trump was making it up for dramatic effect.
The situation with Iran is even more serious, though, because it is not about dramatic license but about the actual justification for a major military strike.
Pompeo momentarily appeared to offer a firm denial, but he quickly — and quite conspicuously — watered that down.
Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.
What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.
Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.
How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.
What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.
Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question to Post reporters.
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