WASHINGTON — The White House delivered its legal justification for the January airstrike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, arguing that President Donald Trump was authorized to take the action under the Constitution and 2002 legislation authorizing the Iraq War.
The Trump administration memo, which was released Friday by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, was the first official explanation of the president’s legal grounds for ordering the strike, which spiked tensions in the Middle East and pushed Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.
Lawmakers from both parties have complained that the White House didn’t give them enough information about the operation and offered shifting justifications, including Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Soleimani was on the verge of directing attacks on four U.S. embassies.
“The purposes of this action were to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests, to degrade Iran’s and Qods Force-backed militias’ ability to conduct attacks, and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks on, and threats to, United States interests,” the memo said.
The version of the memo that Engel released does not include a classified annex that was also transmitted by the White House. The public document makes only a passing allusion to the possible “threat of imminent attack,” prompting some of the president’s critics to again question whether Trump and other senior administration officials were being truthful when they claimed that Soleimani had an impending plot.
“This official report directly contradicts the president’s false assertion that he attacked Iran to prevent an imminent attack against United States personnel and embassies,” Engel said in a statement. “The administration’s explanation in this report makes no mention of any imminent threat and shows that the justification the president offered to the American people was false, plain and simple.”
Engel went on to say that using the Iraq War authorization to justify the attack was “absurd” because the strike was against an Iranian official.
Trump isn’t the first president to take an expansive view of the powers conveyed by the Iraq war resolution. President Barack Obama used the law to justify American strikes on Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has said Soleimani was planning an imminent attack on Americans and working “to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead, potentially, to the death of many more Americans.” But he has also acknowledged that the administration didn’t necessarily know when and where future attacks were being planned.
Pompeo is set to testify before the Foreign Affairs committee on Feb. 28.
Trump told Fox News on Jan. 10 that he believed Soleimani was planning attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and three other U.S. embassies in the region. Two days later, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS News that he “didn’t see” intelligence suggesting the specific threat Trump described.
“What the president said was, he believed it probably could have been,” Esper said in a separate interview with CNN. “He didn’t cite intelligence.”
Trump also justified the drone strike to a gathering of Republican donors later in January, telling the audience at his Mar-a-Lago resort that the top Iranian general was “saying bad things about our country.”
He also used a vulgar expression to describe the nature of Soleimani’s comments, CNN reported.
The president has argued his administration has been “totally consistent” in its explanation of the intelligence that justified the strike, and he has criticized Democrats for raising objections over the death of someone responsible for harming U.S. service members.
“Here’s what’s been consistent: We killed Soleimani, the number one terrorist in the world by every account,” Trump said. “Bad person.”
The public release of the administration’s memo came a day after the Senate passed a resolution limiting the president’s ability to use military action against Iran without congressional approval. Eight Republicans voted with Democrats to support the measure, but the legislation did not appear to have enough support to override a threatened veto by the White House.
Trump urged senators to vote against the restrictions, tweeting that if his “hands were tied, Iran would have a field day.”
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