The White House delivered its legal justification for the January airstrike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, arguing that President Donald Trump was authorised to take the action under the Constitution and 2002 legislation authorising the Iraq war.
The Trump administration memo, which was released by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, was the first official explanation of the president’s legal grounds for ordering the strike, which spiked tensions in the Middle East and pushed Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.
Lawmakers from both parties have complained that the White House didn’t give them enough information about the operation and offered shifting justifications, including Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Soleimani was on the verge of directing attacks on four US embassies.
“The purposes of this action were to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests, to degrade Iran’s and Qods Force-backed militias’ ability to conduct attacks, and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks on, and threats to, United States interests,” the memo said.
The version of the memo that Engel released does not include a classified annex that was also transmitted by the White House. The public document makes only a passing allusion to the possible “threat of imminent attack,” prompting some of the president’s critics to again question whether Trump and other senior administration officials were being truthful when they claimed that Soleimani had an impending plot.
“This official report directly contradicts the president’s false assertion that he attacked Iran to prevent an imminent attack against United States personnel and embassies,” Engel said.
“The administration’s explanation in this report makes no mention of any imminent threat and shows that the justification the president offered to the American people was false, plain and simple.”
Engel went on to say that using the Iraq war authorisation to justify the attack was “absurd” because the strike was against an Iranian official.
Trump isn’t the first president to take an expansive view of the powers conveyed by the Iraq war resolution. President Barack Obama used the law to justify American strikes on IS fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has said Soleimani was planning an imminent attack on Americans and working “to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead, potentially, to the death of many more Americans.”
But he has also acknowledged that the administration didn’t necessarily know when and where future attacks were being planned.
Pompeo is set to testify before the Foreign Affairs committee on February 28.
Trump told Fox News that he believed Soleimani was planning attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad and three other US embassies in the region.
Two days later, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS News that he “didn’t see” intelligence suggesting the specific threat Trump described.
“What the president said was, he believed it probably could have been,” Esper said in a separate interview with CNN.