Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday defended the basis for killing Iranian General Qasem Soleimani because of the threat of an imminent strike but declined to present any evidence, saying President Donald Trump’s decision was “entirely legal.”
“There’s been much made about this question of intelligence and imminence,” Pompeo said at the State Department. “Any time a president makes a decision of this magnitude, there are multitude pieces of information that come before him.”
“It’s the right decision, we got it right, the Department of Defense did excellent work,” he said, adding that it was an “entirely legal decision.”
Pompeo made his remarks as questions continue to mount about the justification for the strike as well as the administration’s overall level of strategic planning for the fallout from killing the second most powerful man in Iran. Just hours after Pompeo spoke, Iran launched more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi bases that host US troops in what appears to be an act of retaliation.
Pompeo made his remarks a day after the Pentagon issued contradictory and confusing signals about whether US troops would be pulled from Iraq and Trump doubled down on his threats to strike Iranian cultural sites – an international war crime that Pompeo had earlier tried to deny the President had said at all.
His appearance Tuesday failed to clear up lingering uncertainty or quell calls for more information.
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called on the Trump administration Tuesday to release the intelligence behind last week’s strike so that the American people can decide whether the provocative action was justified.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, along with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, is pushing for the declassification of Trump’s formal notification to Congress over Soleimani’s killing, which has sparked a dangerous escalation between the two longtime foes.
Several sources have told CNN that the notification was brief, contained few operational details and essentially laid out the President’s authorities to carry out the strike. That lack of detail has fueled questions about why it was classified to begin with, and administration officials have repeatedly publicly declined to provide the evidence behind the strike.
On Tuesday, Pompeo told reporters that senior officials presented Trump with the threats posed by Soleimani “in broad detail.”
The top US diplomat didn’t offer any evidence of an imminent threat, required to legally justify the strike, but instead referred to past events that he said Soleimani was responsible for. The Washington Post has reported that Pompeo had been lobbying Trump for months to kill Soleimani.
“We could see clearly everything Soleimani has done,” Pompeo said, pointing to Iran’s influence in Lebanon and other countries in the region where he said Tehran has denied people “sovereignty and freedom.”
“If you’re looking for imminence you need only look at the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani,” Pompeo said, referencing the death of an American contractor in late December. He said the action against Soleimani “fit perfectly within our strategy” for countering Iran.
Pompeo mocked statements by Iraqi and Iranian officials that Soleimani had gone to Baghdad on a diplomatic mission, saying it “wasn’t true.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi told the Iraqi parliament that Soleiman had traveled to Baghdad to discuss and coordinate a de-escalation of tensions with Saudi Arabia. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CNN Soleiman’s mission had been diplomatic in a Tuesday interview with CNN.
Pompeo ridiculed the idea. “Anybody here believe that?” he asked facetiously during the press conference with reporters at the State Department. “Is there any history that would indicate it was remotely possible that this kind gentleman, this diplomat of great order, Qasem Soleimani had traveled to Baghdad for the idea of conducting a peace mission?”
Pompeo went on to say, without presenting evidence, that “we know that wasn’t true. We not only know the history, we know in that moment that was not true. Zarif is a propogandist of the first order.”
“I know there has been some story that he was there representing a Saudi peace deal,” Pompeo said, characterizing the mission in terms that neither Iran nor Iraq have used. Though Soleimani wasn’t able to conduct this outreach, Pompeo offered what he said was the Saudi perspective on the alleged diplomatic mission and what it meant to Americans, as opposed to Saudis.
“I can assure you that they share my view that he was not there representing some kind of agreement that would reduce risk or reduce the risk to lives of Americans when he was on that trip,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also continued to sidestep the President’s threats to destroy Iranian cultural sites, arguing that “every action” the US takes “will be consistent with the international rule of law.”
The top US diplomat claimed that his comments are consistent with Trump’s, despite the fact that the President has doubled down on his threat to strike Iranian cultural sites, which would be a war crime.
‘What are they afraid of?’
Instead, Pompeo deflected the blame to Iran itself and accused the Ayatollah of having “done damage to the Persian culture.”
Pompeo later took to Twitter to continue his attack.
“No one has damaged Persian culture more than the Islamic Republic,” Pompeo wrote, alleging bans on dancing and a lack of religious tolerance. “Iran’s regime has defiled everything Iranians hold dear.”
Pompeo was also asked about Zarif’s claims that the US has denied him a visa to speak at a United Nations Security Council meeting set for Thursday. In an interview with NPR, Zarif said he had requested the visa 25 days ago, but the US State Department told him it “didn’t have enough time to issue a visa.”
“We don’t comment on visa matters for those traveling to the United States,” Pompeo said, but added that “we will always comply with our obligations” under the UN charter.
When asked by CNN’s Fred Pleitgen about his reaction to being denied the visa, Zarif answered with a laugh, “Well, what are they afraid of?” When pushed as to whether he was concerned about it, Zarif said, “no.”
CNN’s Jamie Crawford, Veronica Straqualursi and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.