Trump's evolving account of Soleimani's 'imminent threat'

The president's latest claim Friday was that the Iranian general was probably planning attacks on four U.S. embassies, including the one in Baghdad.

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By Shannon Pettypiece

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s description of the “imminent threat” that led to the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani keeps evolving, at times appearing to contradict what his administration has shared with Congress and the public about what prompted his decision.

On Friday, Trump said that he decided to order the strike on Soleimani on Iraqi soil because the senior Iranian official was “probably” planning attacks on four U.S. embassies, including the one in Baghdad.

"We will tell you that probably it was going to be the embassy in Baghdad,” Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. When pressed on why Americans could not know more about what led to his decision, Trump added, “I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies."

A day earlier, Trump offered a more definitive, yet narrower, description when he told reporters at the White House that “we did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy.” At a campaign rally Thursday night, he said that attacks were planned on more than just the embassy in Baghdad, but did not elaborate on how many embassies or which ones were allegedly targeted.

No information about any immediate threat to U.S. embassies was shared with lawmakers in their classified briefing Thursday, some Democrats have said, fueling charges from some members of Congress that Trump has flouted their constitutional power to give consent before a president takes the country to war.

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“None of the facts presented at the classified briefing supported that claim [that Soleimani was planning an attack on the embassy in Baghdad], and so, now you have them saying they can't provide this kind of information to senators in a highly classified setting, but the president is going to say that to the country,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Thursday on MSNBC’s "Andrea Mitchell Reports." “It just shows how they're making this up as they go. They would have presented that kind of evidence yesterday if they had it.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted similar comments Friday. "Let's be clear - if there was evidence of imminent attacks on four embassies, the Administration would have said so at our Wednesday briefing," he wrote. "They didn't."

Trump's comments over the past two days appear to contradict those made by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, who Monday said the intelligence had not indicated a specific target, and was focused on military personnel rather than on diplomats.

"It was imminent, and it was very, very clear in scale, scope," Milley said. "Did it exactly say who, what, when, where? No. But he was planning, coordinating and synchronizing significant combat operations against U.S. military forces in the region and it was imminent."

Other officials were vaguer, not mentioning any specific threats. National security adviser Robert O’Brien said on Fox News on Tuesday morning that Soleimani was “looking to kill American diplomats and soldiers in significant numbers in the coming days.” On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said only that Soleimani was working to “build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans.”

But Trump’s latest remarks seemed to contradict some of Pompeo's comments earlier in the week. On Thursday night, Pompeo told Fox News the U.S. didn’t know “precisely when and we didn’t know precisely where” the attacks would be carried out.

On Friday, following Trump's claims, Pompeo's account seemed to shift slightly. He told reporters that while the U.S. had not known the exact day of a possible attack, officials did have “specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats included attacks on U.S. embassies.” He said all the intelligence the administration has was shared with Congress.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, asked Friday to confirm the president's claim that four embassies had been targeted, said only that she "can't comment beyond what the president said."

Trump has been under fire from Democrats who have questioned his decision to target Soleimani, and whether he had the authority to order the operation without first informing Congress. The House voted mostly along party lines Thursday to adopt a war powers resolution to limit his military actions against Iran.