A war of the mind

On January 3, Trump authorized a drone attack on Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, putting the country on the precipice of war. Ten days later, the American people still do not have a straight answer on why Trump did it. 

The initial State Department release claimed, “Soleimani was planning imminent attacks against American diplomats and our armed forces members in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and in the region.” This vague declaration was not accompanied by any intelligence or other evidence substantiating the claim. 

Fox News’ Laura Ingraham queried Trump about this in an interview that aired on Friday night. “Don't the American people have a right to know what specifically was targeted without revealing methods and sources?” Ingraham asked. 

Trump said that he didn’t think the American people had the right to know. But then Trump answered the question anyway. “I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies,” Trump said. 

So Trump ordered Soleimani to be killed because there was intelligence suggesting that Soleimani was planning imminent attacks on four embassies? On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was asked that question on CBS News. 

ESPER: What the president said was that he believed there probably or could have been attacks against additional embassies. I shared that view. Other members of the national security team shared that view….[Trump] didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said is there probably, could have been…

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you saying there wasn’t [a specific piece of evidence]?

ESPER: I didn’t see one, with regard to four embassies.

Esper is the Secretary of Defense. So if he didn’t see intelligence about planning for an imminent attack on four embassies, it did not exist. 

It is an extraordinary statement with disturbing implications. Esper is admitting that Trump’s “belief” that Soleimani was planning an imminent attack on four embassies was not supported by intelligence or evidence. But yet, Esper claims, that belief was a legitimate predicate for military action. 

It represents a total decoupling of acts of war from reality. Yes, the Iraq War was justified by intelligence that was manipulated and politicized. But the Trump administration is arguing that war does not even need to be justified by facts. 

Whatever is floating through Trump’s head is enough. 

The meaning of “imminent”

So there wasn’t evidence that Soleimani was planning to attack four U.S. embassies. But was there evidence that Soleimani was planning any kind of imminent attack, as the State Department claimed?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, defending the State Department’s claims, said on Fox News that he considered attacks “imminent” even if he didn’t know when they would occur.

There were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani. We don’t know precisely when, and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real.

This definition strips the word “imminent” of all meaning. If you don’t know when the attacks would occur, it is impossible to say those attacks were “imminent.”

One of Trump’s strongest allies revolts

So there was no intelligence about imminent attacks on embassies. So what did the evidence say? The American people are being kept in the dark. But the Senate has been briefed and some of Trump’s biggest supporters, including Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), are not impressed. Here’s what Lee said after being briefed last Wednesday:

Probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I have served in the United States Senate.

To come in and tell us that we can't debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran, it's un-American, it's unconstitutional, and it's wrong, that was insulting. That was demeaning to the process ordained by the Constitution.

And I find it completely unacceptable.

So, according to Lee, the “briefing” did not include any compelling evidence that would justify the attack but did include an admonition to Senators not to question Trump’s decision. 

On Sunday, Lee said he was “worried” and could no longer take the Trump administration’s “word at face value.” According to Lee, he still has not learned the “information underlying” the decision to kill Soleimani. Lee also said that the administration’s briefing included no information about planned attacks on U.S. embassies. 

A disturbing report on Trump’s motivations

If Trump wasn’t responding to intelligence, why did he authorize the strike on Soleimani? According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump was trying was under pressure from hawkish Republican Senators to act and wanted to accommodate them in advance of his impeachment trial. 

Mr. Trump, after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate, associates said.

This reporting is anonymously sourced, so we can’t be sure that it’s true. And it seems unlikely that Trump is worried about being convicted in the Senate. 

But Trump does need the cooperation of nearly all Republican Senators to control the process. This now includes bottling up the potentially damaging testimony of former National Security Adviser John Bolton. 

What was the justification for war?

According to Representative Gerry Connolly (D-MA), members of Congress were told by a group of officials that included Esper that the strike killing Soleimani was justified, in part, by the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The 2002 AUMF was passed to authorize the Iraq War. 

During his confirmation hearing last July, Esper was asked by Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) if the 2002 AUMF “provides necessary legal authorization for us to use [the] military against Iran.” Esper responded that it did not.

Now, Duckworth wants answers. In a letter to Esper, Duckworth demanded the Department of Defense “act swiftly to inform the Congress and the American public precisely what legal authority, or which legal authorities, authorized the military operation on January 3, 2020 killing Major General Qasem Soleimani.” Specifically, Duckworth requested “no later than Monday, January 13, 2020, DoD post on its public website the specific legal memorandums or simply the list of authorities under which it acted.”

Duckworth is drilling down on a couple of important things. If Esper is now claiming the killing of an Iranian general was justified by the 2002 AUMF, he’s contradicting his Congressional testimony. But if the 2002 AUMF was not part of the legal justification, Trump was relying on his powers as Commander-in-Chief under Article II. 

If Trump was relying exclusively on his inherent powers under Article II, that makes the issue of an “imminent threat” even more important. It means if there was no imminent threat, there was no legal justification for the killing. 

Thanks for reading!