A week after the US killed Iran’s second most powerful official, spiking tensions in the region and triggering fears of war, the Trump administration continues to present conflicting justifications for the deadly Reaper drone strike and clashing narratives about what has followed.
Again and again, President Donald Trump’s national security officials have contradicted each other about how imminent a threat Qasem Soleimani posed, whether they had specific intelligence on the threat and even what that threat was, with Trump saying one thing then another, while officials offered varying explanations.
Administration officials even appear to disagree on the roles that Trump’s principal advisers played, with the Defense Department pushing back on news reports Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was a prime actor in directing troop movements.
The confusion has extended to events following Soleimani’s killing, as the administration offered diverging narratives about Iran’s retaliatory attack on US forces in Iraq Wednesday and the departments of Treasury and State presented mismatched details on Iran sanctions Friday.
Amid the fog, lawmakers from both parties have blasted the administration for failing to share intelligence to support or explain its decisions. Administration officials who briefed them insist they explained aspects of the threat that – bizarrely – several members of Congress say weren’t discussed at all.
The result is that over a week after Trump pushed the region to the edge of possible conflict, lawmakers and the public remain in the dark about the reasons why.
“From the very get-go, the public messaging has raised all kinds of questions about whether or not there was sufficient motivation to launch an attack to kill arguable the second most powerful and important man in Iran,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Explanations have been “bungled at I don’t know how many levels by the contradictory statements,” Miller said. The confusion has implications for US national security, he said. “They’ve created tremendous problems in terms of transparency and credibility, which are critically important if we’re entering a period of potential escalation or even war.”
What was the threat?
On Thursday, it depended on the time of day the President was speaking.
At a late morning event in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, he told the crowd that “we did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy. We also did it for other reasons that were very obvious. Somebody died – one of our military people died,” an apparent reference to the death of a US contractor after a rocket attack by a militia close to Iran.
A few hours later, Trump added other justifications. Soleimani “was looking very seriously at our embassies, and not just the embassy in Baghdad,” he said at a rally in Ohio. And on Friday, he offered greater detail in an interview with Fox News, saying that “I believe it would’ve been four embassies.”
Asked about Trump’s initial claim that “they were looking to blow up our embassy,” administration officials said Thursday that the President had been referring to the storming of the embassy that had already occurred.
Later in the day, a senior defense official told reporters that there had actually been a plot to attack the embassy involving explosives, one of multiple plots Soleimani was allegedly working that was separate and clearly more sophisticated than the attempts to storm the embassy by Molotov-cocktail-wielding protestors.
But lawmakers who attended a briefing from Pompeo and Defense Secretary Esper said that if that was the rationale for killing Soleimani, the two senior officials hadn’t bothered to tell them.
“Let’s be clear - if there was evidence of imminent attacks on four embassies, the Administration would have said so at our Wednesday briefing,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in a tweet. “They didn’t. So either Fox News gets higher level briefings than Congress…or…wait for it…there was no such imminent threat.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate, told NBC Friday morning that neither Pompeo nor Esper raised embassy plots in the briefing, and when Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was asked about it, he said, “that’s news to me based on sitting through that hearing yesterday.”
“I sat through that hearing. I listened very carefully. I definitely would have known if anyone said that,” Kaine said. GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah called the session the “worst briefing I’ve had on a military issue in my nine years” in the Senate.
On the House side, Florida Rep. Val Demings, a member of the House Intelligence committee, also said lawmakers weren’t informed about any threat to a US embassy. “Do you think that he had a nightmare and thought it was reality,” she asked of Trump’s claim.
Despite this, Pompeo insisted Friday that he and Esper had, in fact, briefed lawmakers about the embassy threat during the closed-door classified Senate session Wednesday.
“We did,” he said. “Yes. We told them about the imminent threat. All of the intelligence that we briefed – that you’ve heard today I assure you in an unclassified setting, we provide in the classified setting, as well,” Pompeo said.
Pressed again, Pompeo said, “I’m not going to talk about the details of what we shared in a classified setting, but make no mistake about it: those leaders, those members of Congress who want to go access this same intelligence can see that very same intelligence that will reflect what I’m describing and what the President said last night.”
Lawmakers have also challenged the administration on the “question of imminence,” as Pompeo puts it. The idea that the threat is imminent is crucial to legally justify Soleimani’s January 3 killing.
But when asked how immediate the threat had been, administration officials have often referred to Soleimani’s past activities or pointed to the US contractor’s death in Iraq as evidence. “There was lots of intelligence,” Pompeo said January 5. “You’ve seen some of it’s out in the public, right? The death of the American on December 27th.”
One Republican congressional source with knowledge of the events questioned the idea there was an imminent threat and said the contractor’s death may have been the more pivotal factor because of Trump’s fears he could face a hostage situation like that in 1979 Iran or US citizen deaths like the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi, Libya.
“The intelligence may be no different of (Soleimani) planning” attacks similar to those he’d conducted in the past, this source said. Many analysts note Soleimani’s movements about the region were not unusual. “If an American hadn’t died, I don’t think any of this would have happened.”
While Esper told CNN on January 8 said the threat was “only a matter of days, certainly no more than weeks” away, Pompeo has emphasized that the exact timing doesn’t matter. The timetable “is not something that’s relevant” to Americans in the region, Pompeo told CNN.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said the intelligence was “compelling, it was imminent, and it was very, very clear in scale, scope.” But then he went on to caveat heavily, saying, “did it exactly say who, what, when, where? No.”
On Friday, even as lawmakers continued to question the administration’s claims, Pompeo refused to define in time increments what “imminent” meant and insisted there was no contradiction in saying an attack was imminent even if he didn’t know when it would happen. “Those are completely consistent thoughts,” he said, speaking at the White House. “I don’t know exactly which minute. We don’t know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear.”
‘A lot doesn’t add up’
The Carnegie Endowment’s Miller, referring to the 180-degree disconnect on the briefings to lawmakers and the crucial question of imminence, said “there’s a lot, a lot, that doesn’t add up.”
The mixed messages have continued about events in the days after the January 3 drone strike on Soleimani, particularly about Iran’s retaliatory missile attacks early Wednesday on Iraqi bases that host US forces.
Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi told CNN’s John Berman Friday that targets were chosen “in order to show that we are capable of hitting the target where the plan to kill Soleimani was organized,” and added that “we are not looking after killing Americans within this operation.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, multiple administration officials came to that conclusion, telling CNN they believed Iran had intentionally missed areas populated by Americans to send a message, rather than take significant enough action to provoke a US military response.
But a few days later, the story shifted. Esper and Milley were the first to charge that Iran had intended to kill Americans. Vice President Mike Pence echoed them, telling Fox on Thursday there is “no doubt in my mind they were intending to kill Americans.”
While Trump’s senior officials pivoted in lockstep on that talking point, there have been signs of internal discord. A senior US defense official suggested that news reports may be inflating Pompeo’s role. CNN reported that a source in Pompeo’s inner circle described his work with Milley and the commander of CENTCOM, who assessed the profile of troops in the field.
While Esper and Pompeo have a very good relationship, the senior defense official said, Esper had full control and ownership of all issues relating to the defense department and the disposition of US troops.
The official added that Esper was in close contact with Pompeo, however, and kept him apprised of troop deployments to secure US facilities in the region.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately reflect that Milley and Esper publicly suggested Iran sought to kill Americans during its Wednesday strikes on Iraqi bases before Pence made the same claim and to clarify that a senior US defense official’s comments were in response to news reports.
CNN’s Maegan Vasquez, Ryan Browne, Kylie Atwood, Pamela Brown, Kaitlan Collins, Jim Sciutto, Caroline Kelly, Maju Raju and Ted Barrett contributed to this report