“Although the threat of further attack existed, recourse to the inherent right of self-defense was justified sufficiently by the series of attacks that preceded the January 2 strike,” the memo reads.
Congressional Democrats, and some Republicans, were furious that Trump approved a deadly military attack that threatened to escalate tensions in an already strained region without consulting Congress. They cast doubt on whether the White House had reacted to thwart an imminent threat.
“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,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.). “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.”
A spokesman for the National Security Council said the White House had no further comment beyond the memo.
The letter appeared to confirm what Democrats had suspected almost from the start about the lack of a specific, immediate threat to U.S. forces or other personnel that would merit the killing of Soleimani and his traveling party almost immediately after he had arrived at the Baghdad airport. U.S. intelligence agencies have tracked Soleimani for years.
The administration gave shifting descriptions of the immediacy and scope of the threat, with Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially claiming that the strike had been taken to avert an urgent, imminent threat to American lives and Embassy infrastructure.
Trump said the threat to diplomats and other personnel was “imminent.”
The killing was “in response to imminent threats to American lives,” Pompeo said on Twitter on Jan. 3. Later the same day, Pompeo told CNN that Soleimani had been actively plotting “a big action” that “would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk” in the region.
The administration produced no evidence of such an immediate threat and two days later, Pompeo appeared to soften his description. “It’s a collective. It’s a full situational awareness of risk and analysis,” Pompeo said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
A week later, after Trump had said the threat included targeting of four embassies, his Pentagon chief demurred.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on CBS’s “Face The Nation.” “I share the president’s view that probably, my expectation was, they were going to go after our embassies.”
The question of immediacy matters because an emergency action can be made with greater presidential discretion and fewer obligations to inform Congress. An immediate threat would also reinforce the Trump administration’s claim that it was acting in self-defense and not as a provocation to war.
Iran retaliated with airstrikes on bases housing U.S. personnel in Iraq, injuring scores, but both nations stepped back from possible war.
The memo to Congress came one day after a rare bipartisan rebuke to Trump over his war powers. The Senate passed a resolution Thursday to limit Trump’s power to order military action against Iran without first seeking congressional permission, with eight Republicans joining all Democrats in voting 55 to 45 for the measure. Trump had personally warned that challenging his war powers would “show weakness” and send “a very bad signal” to Tehran.
Trump will almost certainly veto the measure once it passes the House, and neither chamber of Congress appears to have the votes to override that veto.
Half the Senate Republicans who broke ranks with Trump had done so before on the same issue. In June, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) joined Democrats in backing an amendment to the annual defense bill requiring that Trump approach Congress before taking military action against Iran, except in cases of clear self-defense or imminent attack.
In March 2019, those four Republican senators, along with Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), joined Democrats to back a war-powers resolution ordering the president to stop helping the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
The number of GOP senators willing to cross Trump over his Iran policy has risen in the wake of the Soleimani strike last month.