WASHINGTON – Department of Justice officials were consulted before President Donald Trump ordered a strike that killed a top Iranian general, Attorney General William Barr said on Monday.
"Frankly I didn't think it was a close call," Barr told reporters. "The president clearly had the authority to act as he did. ... We had a situation where the Iranians had already embarked on a series of escalating violent actions taken against our allies, taken against the American people, our troops, with the avowed purpose of driving us out of the Middle East."
Barr's comments come amid growing questions about the Trump administration's justification for killing Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who led an elite unit of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The president and his national security advisers have offered shifting accounts about what prompted the decision to target Soleimani as he left the Baghdad International Airport earlier this month.
Barr declined to say when the Justice Department was first consulted on the operation, but he described Soleimani as a “legitimate target.”
“This was a legitimate act of self defense,” Barr said in his first public comments on the strike.
In Congress, Democrats and some Republicans have questioned assertions by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials that Soleimani was plotting an "imminent" attack that would have put American lives at risk.
"The briefing was incredibly thin on facts," Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said after Trump administration officials gave lawmakers a classified briefing on the matter last week.
To the extent facts were provided, Van Hollen said, "they did not support any claim of an imminent threat that would justify the actions they've taken with respect to eliminating Soleimani."
Pompeo later seemed to back away from the claim that an attack was "imminent." He told Fox News last week, "We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where" the attack was supposed to occur.
Then on Friday, Trump told Fox News that Soleimani was planning an attack against four U.S. embassies, including the one in Baghdad – a detail his Pentagon chief did not support in a subsequent interview.
“I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” Trump told the "Ingraham Angle."
But on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he had not seen specific evidence that Iran planned an imminent attack on four U.S. embassies, as Trump claimed.
Esper said he and others in the administration shared the president's belief that the embassies were potential targets. And he said intelligence suggested an attack would unfold in a "matter of days" and would hit multiple targets.
"There was going to be an attack within a matter of days that would be broad in scale – in other words, more than one country – and that it would be bigger than previous attacks," Esper said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation."
Barr echoed other administration defenses of the strike as designed to disrupt “imminent” attacks on U.S. interests. But he declined to elaborate on the timing of those plans, saying he didn't believe there was a requirement for the U.S. to know the specific timing of a pending strike.
"Our ability to deter attacks had obviously broken down," the attorney general said, referring to a series of escalating confrontations between Washington and Tehran that preceded Soleimani's killing.
"The Iranians had been given a number of red lines and were crossing those lines," Barr said. "They obviously felt that they could attack us and continue these escalating attacks with impunity."
On Monday, Trump again defended his decision and said the accounts he and others have given have been "totally consistent."
"We killed Soleimani, the number one terrorist in the world by every account. Bad person, killed a lot of Americans, killed a lot of people," the president said.
Iraqi leaders have denounced the strike as a "political assassination" and a violation of their country's sovereignty. They are now pushing for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, which Trump has rejected.
Iran retaliated for Soleimani's killing by launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at an Iraqi base that houses American troops. No one was killed in the Iranian attack.
Trump vs. Tehran: Iraqis caught in the middle
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: AG Barr: President Trump had clear authority to kill Iran's Soleimani