Trump administration national security officials on Sunday were pushed to defend the intelligence that they said prompted the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the congressional briefing they delivered last week that was panned by a number of lawmakers and President Trump‘s claims about threats to U.S. embassies.
Members of Congress from both parties expressed skepticism about the administration’s decision to kill Soleimani without briefing lawmakers, and on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and national security adviser Robert O’Brien were repeatedly pressed on the briefing and Trump’s comments.
Asked about Trump’s assertion during a Friday Fox News interview that Soleimani was plotting attacks on four U.S. embassies, Esper conceded he “didn’t see” intelligence indicating such an imminent attack.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “What I’m saying is I share the president’s view.”
“What the president said was he believed there probably and could’ve been attacks against additional embassies. I shared that view. I know other members of the national security team shared that view. That’s why I deployed thousands of American paratroopers to the Middle East to reinforce our embassy in Baghdad and other sites throughout the region,” Esper said.
In an interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, O’Brien also defended the apparent contradiction between what administration figures told Congress during a briefing on the airstrike that killed Soleimani and Trump’s claim about threats to the embassies, which members present at the briefing said wasn’t mentioned.
“It does seem to be a contradiction. He’s telling Laura Ingraham [about imminent attacks], but in a 75-minute classified briefing, your top national security people never mentioned this to members of Congress. Why not?” Wallace asked O’Brien on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I wasn’t at the briefing, and I don’t know how the Q&A went back and forth. Sometimes it depends on the questions that were asked or how they were phrased,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien on NBC’s “Meet the Press” said the strike was based on intelligence he called “exquisite.”
“This is a very fast-moving situation, and Soleimani was traveling around the region plotting against the United States,” O’Brien told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “As soon as it looked like there was going to be some sort of action against the U.S. Embassy, the president was decisive and bold in his action.”
Esper also said the so-called Gang of Eight, the top members of Congress’s intelligence committees, did not believe further intelligence on Iran should be shared with Congress.
Esper told CBS’s Margaret Brennan he spoke to one of the officials who briefed the Gang of Eight and that “his assessment was most if not all the members thought the intelligence was persuasive and that the Gang of Eight did not think it should be released to the broader members of Congress.”
But those arguments didn’t seem to sway several members of Congress who said last week they were unhappy with the briefing.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” warned that the strike was a continuation of decades of presidential military action without consulting or briefing Congress.
“I think presidents of both parties have been trying to usurp the authority, but our Founding Fathers wanted it to remain in Congress,” Paul said.
“They wanted to make it difficult to go to war, and I think we’ve been drifting away from that for a long time, but that’s why I’m willing to stand up, not because I distrust President Trump — I actually think he has shown remarkable restraint — but I’m willing to stand up even against a president of my party because we need to stand up and take back the power,” he added.
Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.), like Paul a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complained to Wallace that “in the classified briefing, we got less detailed information than President Trump shared with Laura Ingraham.”
“What made the  Iran deal possible was getting most of the world aligned with the United States in putting sanctions and pressure on Iran,” Coons said. “This recent incident of killing Qassem Soleimani has further strained some of our partnerships” with nations such as the U.K., France and Germany, “and we need them if we’re going to build a stronger next Iran deal.”