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Opinion New details about Soleimani killing further undercut Trump’s lies

(Evan Vucci/AP)

Ever since President Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s Qasem Soleimani, one big unanswered question has been this: How did the option of killing the Quds Force commander get on Trump’s menu of possibilities in the first place, and why?

A new report from NBC News offers a striking answer to this question. In addition to further undercutting the Trump administration’s shifting rationales for the killing, it also means congressional oversight on Trump’s decision-making and constraints on his warmaking authority have become even more imperative:

President Donald Trump authorized the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani seven months ago if Iran's increased aggression resulted in the death of an American, according to five current and former senior administration officials.
The presidential directive in June came with the condition that Trump would have final sign-off on any specific operation to kill Soleimani, officials said.
That decision explains why assassinating Soleimani was on the menu of options that the military presented to Trump two weeks ago for responding to an attack by Iranian proxies in Iraq, in which a U.S. contractor was killed and four U.S. service members were wounded, the officials said.
The timing, however, could undermine the Trump administration’s stated justification for ordering the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3. Officials have said Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, was planning imminent attacks on Americans and had to be stopped.

One can imagine a theoretical scenario in which Trump authorized the killing in June while only giving the final order when an attack was indeed imminent. But if anything, the claim that the killing was necessary to avert an imminent threat has only gotten more flimsy.

To recap: On Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper admitted he “didn’t see” specific evidence supporting Trump’s claim that Soleimani was targeting four embassies, while adding that “I share the president’s view” that “probably” they were “going to go after our embassies.”

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In other words, Trump made this up. In drawing this distinction between what the evidence showed and what Trump’s “view” was, Esper unwittingly demonstrated the yawning gap between those things, which is of course a reminder of why Trump is so unfit to be making such enormously consequential decisions.

This comes after the New York Times’ weekend report on the tick-tock leading to the assassination, and indeed, it is in the context of this report that the NBC article becomes more significant.

Trump has entered a new era of warfare by openly authorizing the assassination of another nation's military leader, using an armed drone, says David Ignatius. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Abedin Taherkenareh/The Washington Post)

The details look worse and worse

The Times reported that after an Iran-backed militia launched strikes on an Iraqi base that killed an American contractor (which ultimately sparked the current escalation), U.S. intelligence officials determined Iran “had not intended to escalate” the conflict and had instead intended the strikes to be more harmless, solely to keep a sense of “pressure” on the United States.

To be clear, that’s what American intelligence determined. Officials also confided to the Times that the intelligence did not convincingly support the claim of an “imminent” threat. This has been confirmed by at least one Republican senator briefed on the intelligence, along with many Democrats.

So what led Trump to, as it were, pull the trigger?

Note this, from the NBC report:

After Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June, John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser at the time, urged Trump to retaliate by signing off on an operation to kill Soleimani, officials said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also wanted Trump to authorize the assassination, officials said.
But Trump rejected the idea, saying he’d take that step only if Iran crossed his red line: killing an American.

So the hyper-hawkish duo of Pompeo and Bolton (who has craved war with Iran since he wore short pants) got Trump to authorize the killing of Soleimani months ago, under certain conditions. NBC reports that this put them at odds with less-hawkish officials who didn’t support a proactive assassination, and have since been purged, which is generally borne out by this Post report.

And so, when the American contractor was killed, the elimination of Soleimani was on the menu of options presented to Trump. So was the elimination of Abdul Reza Shahlai, an Iranian commander in Yemen, the Times reports, but when that went awry, it was not disclosed.

After the contractor was killed, the United States ordered strikes that killed two dozen Iran-backed militia members, which led to protesters storming the embassy in Baghdad.

That’s apparently when Trump, his brain addled by Benghazi-itis — that is, a desire to look tougher than former president Barack Obama did during the Benghazi attacks — ordered the killing of Soleimani, and apparently Shahlai, even though the intelligence indicated that Iran didn’t intend to escalate.

So Soleimani was originally on Trump’s target list in keeping with an agenda that Bolton and Pompeo had been dreaming about for many months. And Trump seems to have ordered a broader operation against Iranian military leaders than anybody knew — and not in response to a genuinely “imminent” threat.

This is nothing like the story we’ve been told. Which raises serious questions about the legality of the killing:

It raises deep concerns about process, as well.

“This is almost a deliberate breakdown in orderly national security decision-making,” Joshua Geltzer, a senior National Security Council official from 2015 to 2017, told me. “It seems like it started with the preferred policy outcome — kill this individual — and then tried to figure out the intelligence and events in the world that would justify it.”

Administration officials simply must come before Congress and explain themselves. Yet Pompeo looks set to blow off an upcoming House committee hearing. And Republicans will likely shrug.

Indeed, it is in this context that Senate Republicans very well might decline to follow the Democratic House’s lead in reasserting congressional authority over Trump’s war powers. Given that Trump’s deceptions are looking ever more serious, this would be bottomlessly craven and indefensible.

Read more:

James Downie: Trump has a new way around facts

Max Boot: Trump’s congenital dishonesty trips him up again

Ian W. Toll: Before Soleimani, there was Yamamoto. But the history is very different.

Greg Sargent: Trump’s unhinged rally rant underscores case for reining him in

Brian Klaas: Trump’s off-the-cuff foreign policy benefits an enemy and undercuts an ally

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: New Iran revelations suggest Trump’s deceptions were deeper than we thought

U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question or read previous Q&As with Post reporters.