The Trump administration is struggling to explain why the US killed top Iranian general Soleimani - here's all the shifting explanations

donald trump trump tower

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Donald Trump speaks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City.

  • The Trump administration has repeatedly changed its rationale for President Trump's decision to kill Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the infamous commander of Iran's Quds Force, in a drone strike earlier this month.
  • Some aides have insisted that Soleimani and his forces were planning an imminent attack that threatened American lives. Only the president provided more specifics on what was being targeted, but without providing any evidence. Then he and some top advisors seemed to backtrack, saying Soleimani "could have been" targeting US embassies.
  • "I think it would have been four embassies, could have been military bases, could have been a lot of other things too. But it was imminent," he recently told Fox News.
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President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, ratcheting up tensions between the US and Iran, but in the aftermath, the US has struggled to explain and justify why it had the infamous commander was killed.

Soleimani, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, was killed early in the morning on Friday, Jan. 3 in Baghdad, Iraq. The strike soured relations between the US and Iraq and led the Iranians to retaliate with a missile attack on US and coalition forces, and as tensions skyrocketed, a passenger jet was accidentally shot down, killing all 176 people on board.Advertisement

Previous administrations opted against killing Soleimani over concerns it would endanger more Americans and civilians by creating greater unrest in the region.

Here is how the Trump administration has tried to justify Soleimani's killing:

trump soleimani

Leah Millis/Reuters; Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

A composite image of US President Donald Trump and Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

'Actively developing plans.' Shortly after the strike took place, the Department of Defense released a statement saying the general had American blood on his hands, stating that his forces were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. The Pentagon blamed him for a rocket attack days prior to his death that killed a US civilian contractor and wounded several American service members.
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The statement said that "Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region," adding that the "strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans."

'Imminent attack taking place.' Hours after the strike, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters: "I can't talk too much about the nature of the threats, but the American people should know that President Trump's decision to remove Qassem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives."He said that "there was in fact an imminent attack taking place," further explaining that "it was the time to take this action" and that "the risk of doing nothing was enormous."Advertisement

The use of the word "imminent" is key.

International law, as it relates to self-defense, stipulates that striking an enemy first to prevent an attack is only lawful when that attack is thought to be imminent, in other words happening or about to happen; there are also other requirements, such as that the anticipated attack leaves "no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation." The administration's shifting justifications have raised questions about the legality of the strike.

'Imminent and sinister.' Later that Friday, Trump told reporters that "Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him."Advertisement

'Planning, coordinating, and synchronizing significant combat operations.' Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters on Jan. 6 that the he and other decision makers would have been "culpably negligent" if they had not eliminated Soleimani.

"He was," the general said, "planning, coordinating, and synchronizing significant combat operations against US. military forces in the region and it was imminent." 

"If you're looking for imminence, you need look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Suleimani," Pompeo said Tuesday, Jan. 7, referring to the rocket attack and the assault on the US Embassy in Baghdad.Advertisement

The Trump administration briefed Congress last Wednesday. Following the meeting, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said it was "probably the worst briefing, at least on a military issue, I've seen in the nine years I've been here." Other lawmakers suggested that they were unconvinced an attack was imminent.

Others, however, were more supportive.

'Looking to blow up our embassy.' Soleimani's death brought the US and Iran to the brink of war and in its wake, some Iraq began calling for US troops in their country to leave. Facing intense questions about the necessity of killing the Iranian general, including from lawmakers briefed on it, the administration began to offer more detailsAdvertisement

"We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy," Trump told reporters, adding, "We also did it for other reasons that were very obvious. Somebody died, one of our military people died, people were badly wounded just a week before."

Trump didn't provide any evidence to support this, and soon other officials began to backtrack from this assertion.'We don't know precisely when.' On Thursday, Pompeo told Fox News: "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."Advertisement

'Could have been a lot of other things.' The following day, the president expanded on his earlier statement, again without providing evidence. "I think it would have been four embassies, could have been military bases, could have been a lot of other things too. But it was imminent," Trump told Fox News.

'They could have been targeting the embassies.' Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told CBS News on Sunday that he "didn't see" specific evidence that Soleimani was targeting US embassies.

"What the president said with regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well," he explained. "He said that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region. I believe that as well, as did other national security team members."Advertisement

Trump's national security advisor, Robert O'Brien, similarly called these threats "consistent" with intelligence, saying: "It is always difficult to know exactly what the targets are, but it certainly is consistent with the intelligence."

'It doesn't really matter because of his horrible past.' On Monday, Jan. 13, Trump tweeted that 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." He stressed that it was but added "it doesn't really matter because of his horrible past!"

NBC News, citing a handful of current and former US officials, reported Monday that Trump actually authorized the killing of Soleimani seven months ago as a retaliation should an Iranian attack kill any American.Advertisement

The NBC report is consistent with a Washington Post report from last June that revealed that Pompeo had been privately warning Iran that the death of a single American would trigger a military response.

"Each passing day raises new questions about the strike that killed General Soleimani. Was there really an imminent threat? Was it part of a larger operation? What was the legal justification? What is the path forward?" Rep. Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement Monday, as he called on the administration to clarify things for the American people.

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