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Questions pile up about Trump’s claim that Soleimani was going to ‘blow up’ a U.S. embassy

And Mike Pompeo declined to put them to rest Friday

Contradicting multiple senators, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Jan. 10 that lawmakers were briefed about threats from Iran toward U.S. embassies. (Video: Reuters)

For six days after Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s death, the Trump administration assured us he was behind “imminent” attacks but declined to offer details. Then Trump came out Thursday and just said it: The deceased Quds Force commander was going to “blow up” a U.S. embassy.

There have to be real questions about the accuracy of that claim.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced a package of new Iran sanctions Friday, but unanswered questions about the strike on Soleimani loomed over it.

Particularly at issue was Trump’s claim about Soleimani targeting embassies. As I noted when he said it, that was very difficult to square with bipartisan claims that there was no real new evidence provided to members of Congress at a briefing Wednesday. And indeed, some Democratic senators said after Trump’s comments that the briefings included no such evidence about embassies. If that was the intelligence, how in the world would 1) it not be shared or 2) members not remember it?

Pompeo’s explanation doesn’t quite clear things up.

NBC News’s Peter Alexander asked him about the claims by the senators, and Pompeo initially seemed to directly dispute their claims and confirm that the briefing included the embassies:

Q: Why can you say that here, and the president can say it at a rally in Toledo, but no one said it to lawmakers behind closed doors in a classified setting, as multiple senators have since said?
POMPEO: We did.

The answer seems clear enough, but then Alexander pressed him on it, making sure the embassy threat was included in the briefing.

At that point, Pompeo became less explicit and reverted to talking more broadly about how the administration shared information on the imminent threats:

Q: So the senators are lying when they say that — ?
POMPEO: We told them about the imminent threat. All of the intelligence that we have briefed — that you’ve heard today, I assure you, in an unclassified setting, we’ve provided in the classified setting as well.
Q: To be clear, you told them that embassies were ... to be targeted? That was the imminent threat?
POMPEO: I’m not going to talk about the details of what we shared in the classified setting. But make no mistake about it: Those leaders, those members of Congress who want to go access this same intelligence can see that very same intelligence that will reflect what I’ve described to you and what the president said last night.

It wasn’t a complete walkback, but, given Pompeo’s initial response, it would have been easy to just confirm it. That Pompeo chose not to raises eyebrows — especially next to the claims of Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) that they weren’t briefed on the embassy threat.

Pompeo was also forced to account for his own commentary on the topic. He said Thursday night of the imminent attack, “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real.” CBS’s Paula Reid asked him to square that with the idea that we knew Soleimani was targeting embassies and thus apparently did know the “where.”

“Those are completely consistent thoughts,” Pompeo maintained. “I don’t know exactly which minute. We don’t know exactly which day it would’ve been executed. But it was very clear. Qasem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests, and those attacks were imminent.”

History also plays a part here. Trump is known for falsehoods and misleading statements, uttering more than 15,000 as president. And this isn’t even the first time there are questions about whether he has accurately recounted the circumstances behind the death of a major adversary.

In October, after his administration took out the founder of the Islamic State militant group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Trump claimed in a vivid news conference that Baghdadi died “whimpering.” Trump said this despite there being very legitimate questions about how he knew that and whether it was even knowable. The New York Times labeled it “The ‘Whimpering’ Terrorist Only Trump Seems to Have Heard.” It seemed fair to ask whether Trump was making it up for dramatic effect.

The situation with Iran is even more serious, though, because it is not about dramatic license but about the actual justification for a major military strike.

Pompeo momentarily appeared to offer a firm denial, but he quickly — and quite conspicuously — watered that down.

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.