In a legally-mandated memo to Congress, the Trump White House outlined its legal rationale for carrying out the January drone strike to kill top Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad. The two-page unclassified memo comes after a series of evolving justifications from the White House that predicated the need to carry out the brazen assassination attempt outside the constitutional war-making powers of Congress on what Trump officials described as an “imminent threat” to American lives. In the memo, however, the Trump administration offered only broad security justifications for the attack, a provocation that had the potential to tip the two countries into war, but provided no evidence of an imminent threat. “Iran’s past and present activities, coupled with intelligence at the time of the air strike, indicated that Iran’s Qods Force posed a threat to the United States in Iraq,” the memo explains, “and the air strike against Soleimani was intended to protect United States personnel and deter future Iranian attack plans against United States forces and interests in Iraq and threats emanating from Iraq.”
“Article II of the United States Constitution, empowers the President, as Commander in Chief, to direct the use of military force to protect the Nation from an attack or threat of imminent attack and to protect important national interests. Article II thus authorized the President to use force against forces of Iran, a state responsible for conducting and directing attacks against United States forces in the region,” says the memo that was delivered Friday to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “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 Quds Force-backed militias’s ability to conduct attacks, and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks, and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks on, and threats to American interests.’
That language mirrors the vagueness of the Trump administration in the days and weeks following the Jan. 3 attack. “Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act,” Trump told reporters at the time. At one point, the president claimed four American embassies had been specifically targeted. Secretary of State Pompeo told CNN after the strike that Soleimani “was actively plotting in the region to take actions, a big action as he described it, that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.” When pushed, Pompeo and the rest of the Trump White House began walking back the “imminent threat” claim, saying: “It’s never one thing. … It’s a collective. It’s a full situational awareness of risk and analysis.”
Trump’s handling of the attack—and his justification for it—rankled both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The Senate passed a measure 55-to-45 last week that would curtail Trump’s powers to carry out a military operation in Iran. The move gained the support of eight Republican senators: Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Todd Young of Indiana.