Why did the United States kill Iranian general Qasem Soleimani? President Trump, in remarks to the nation the morning after the attack, gave a clear rationale. Soleimani “was planning new attacks on American targets, but we stopped him.”
That information has not been made public. But the glimpses behind the curtain have not inspired confidence that Trump’s story is on the level.
The most damning assessment is indirect. When the administration shared its intelligence with select members of Congress, many of them came away unimpressed, if not outright disgusted. Rep. Gerry Connolly described the presentation as “sophomoric and utterly unconvincing.” Even Republican Senator Mike Lee, heretofore an unquestioning Trump supporter, called it the worst briefing, at least on a military issue, he’s seen in the “nine years [he’s] been here.” This is the equivalent of a person who owns 14 house cats reporting that they walked out of the theater halfway through Cats.
Exactly what the administration said, or failed to say, remains classified. But the administration’s public explanations have hardly added clarity. Trump’s initial remarks did not mention any new threat to a U.S. embassy. The next day, he said, “We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy,” presumably in Baghdad. Last night, at a rally in Toledo, he expanded the threat to “embassies,” multiple. In a new interview with Fox News, he has specified the threat as being to four embassies. Oddly, these details seem not to have been included in the briefing to Congress, which raises the question of why information is too classified for members of the U.S. government, but low-level enough to share with the Fox News audience.
A senior administration official and a senior defense official tell the Post they were “only aware of vague intelligence about a plot against the embassy in Baghdad and that the information did not suggest a fully formed plot.” Both sources denied any awareness of “threats against multiple embassies.”
Other ancillary details have made the case look more questionable still. Trump reportedly told associates he acted in part to placate Republican Senators whose support he needed to shape the Senate impeachment trial. The Washington Post reports today that, on the same day as the Soleimani strike, another American mission attempted, but failed, to take out a different Iranian commander in Yemen, where Iran is involved in a civil war. This seems like a strange coincidence if the second target was also linked to an imminent threat to the U.S. “This suggests a mission with a longer planning horizon and a larger objective, and it really does call into question why there was an attempt to explain this publicly on the basis of an imminent threat,” Iran scholar Suzanne Maloney told the Post.
And of course Trump lies all the time, about everything. He specifically lies about the U.S. intelligence community, the conclusions of which he habitually disregards when it suits his purpose. Last year, he dismissed U.S. intelligence that found Iran was abiding the terms of the nuclear deal. So the notion Trump would mislead the country about Iran-related intelligence again hardly seems far-fetched.
It is probably true that Soleimani was linked to plans that posed some kind of threat to the United States at some point. Soleimani was indeed a very dangerous and aggressive figure. But Trump’s claim that he had to be killed right away in order to save American lives is not one that should be taken at face value.
This post has been updated.