His administration unable to keep its story straight about how exactly General Qasem Soleimani posed an “imminent threat” to U.S. national security, President Trump now claims it “really doesn’t matter” if the assassinated Iranian commander was about to kill Americans.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The question of imminence matters. Indeed, the legal justification of the strike depends on it. Killing a top-ranking government official of a nation that the United States is not at war with, on the soil of a third nation altogether, would be illegal, except as an extreme matter of self defense.
Even acting to foil an imminent threat requires an expansive legal reading of Article 51 of the United Nations charter, which outlines the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” According to experts in international law, killing Soleimani was legal only if the U.S. could demonstrate he was the operational commander of attacks that were about to happen, and that killing him — and only the act of killing him — would disrupt that threat.
The truth appears quite different. Like the claims of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002, the Trump administration’s invocation of an “imminent threat” posed by Soleimani looks increasingly like a flimsy rationale, chosen after the fact to justify a predetermined course of U.S. military action.
Democrats have been quicker to call bullshit this time around. “I have still not seen any intelligence to suggest that there was an imminent attack against U.S. forces,” said Senator Chris Murphy, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Counterterrorism. Some Republicans have joined them: “There was no specific information given to us of a specific attack,” said Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky after a classified briefing by the administration. “I didn’t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already.”
According to recent news reports, the killing of Soleimani had been premeditated by the administration for months, not as an act of self-defense, but as a measure of vengeance on a “bad guy” who has long directed violent militias in the region. Moreover, we’ve learned that Soleimani wasn’t the only target for assassination, and that the U.S. also tried, and failed, to take out a second Quds Force commander, Abdul Reza Shahlai, who was targeted in a fourth country, Yemen. More alarming, President Trump himself has reportedly characterized the strikes against Iranians as part of an effort to curry favor with GOP hawks in the Senate who will imminently be serving as jurors in his impeachment trial.
Below is a timeline of the administration’s ever-more-incoherent justifications for taking America to the brink of war with Iran:
January 3rd, 2020
“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani.”— Pentagon statement
“Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.” — President Trump
He was actively plotting in the region to take actions — a big action as he described it — that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk. … Last night was the time that we needed to strike to make sure that this imminent attack that he was working actively was disrupted.” — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
“We would have been culpably negligent had we not taken this action…. There was lots of intelligence.” — Pompeo
“We know what happened at the end of last year, in December, ultimately leading up to the death of an American. So if you’re lookin’ for imminence, you needn’t look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani.” — Pompeo
“We could clearly see … continuing efforts by this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead — potentially — to the death of many more Americans.” — Pompeo
“In recent days, he was planning new attacks on American targets, but we stopped him.” — Trump
“Some of the most compelling evidence that Qasem Soleimani was preparing an imminent attack against American forces and American personnel also represents some of the most sensitive intelligence that we have. It could compromise those sources and methods.” — Vice President Mike Pence on why even Congress could not be briefed on alleged secret intelligence
“There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks being plotted by Qassem Soleimani. We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real.” — Pompeo
Pompeo: “there were a series of imminent attacks, we don’t know when, we don’t know where.
— Jason Sparks (@sparksjls) January 10, 2020
“When one American life was lost at the hands of Iranian-backed militias just a few short weeks ago, POTUS launched the first airstrikes against them in ten years.” — Pence
Pence begins Trump's rally in Toledo by giving up the game about Soleimani strike: "When 1 American life was lost at the hands of Iranian-backed militias just a few short weeks ago, POTUS launched the first airstrikes against them in 10 years." (So long "imminent threat.") pic.twitter.com/a1E2IzVpyh
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 10, 2020
“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the Embassy in Baghdad. We stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold.” — Trump
“We had specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats from him included attacks on U.S. embassies. Period. Full stop.” — Pompeo
—@kaitlancollins: "Secretary Pompeo, what is your definition of 'imminent'?"
Pompeo: "This was going to happen" pic.twitter.com/5LaRmeDeSZ
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) January 10, 2020
“I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies.” — Trump
“I didn’t see one [a decisive piece of intelligence] with regard to four embassies. … What the president said was that he believed there probably could have been. He didn’t cite intelligence.” — Defense Secretary Mark Esper
“It really doesn’t matter.” — Trump
The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was “imminent” or not, & was my team in agreement. The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2020
“I think when you’re dealing with… a campaign that involves repeated attacks on American targets, I don’t think there’s a requirement frankly for, you know, knowing the exact time and place of the next attack…. I believe there was intelligence of imminent attack, but I do believe that concept of imminence is something of a red herring.” — Attorney General Bill Barr