President Donald Trump suggested Thursday that he ordered the killing of Iran’s top military commander last week to disrupt a previously undisclosed plot to attack the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
“I will say this, we caught a total monster. We took him out. That should have happened a long time ago,” Trump said of Qassem Soleimani during an environmental event at the White House.
“We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy. 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,” he added.
Trump was still vague about the threat, which appeared to bring the U.S. to the precipice of war with Iran before Trump tried to cool tensions in a national address Wednesday.
The administration has come under fierce criticism from Democrats and even anti-interventionist GOP lawmakers for refusing to release the underlying intelligence they say was proof Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on American servicemembers and diplomats in the region.
Trump declined to share further details about the alleged plot to destroy the embassy, answering a follow-up question on the subject by suggesting that evidence of such a plot was out in the open. He pointed to protesters who stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad just days before the drone attack that killed Soleimani.
Although it wasn't clear, the president seemed to indicate that it was the protesters who marched on the embassy who were trying to blow it up. Spokespeople for the White House and the National Security Council did not immediately return emails seeking comment.
“No, I think it was obvious, if you look at the protests,” Trump responded when asked for more details about the supposed embassy plot.
Trump then compared his response favorably to the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, asserting that the casualties there were avoidable.
Returning to last week’s assault on the embassy in Iraq, Trump added: “If you look at the protesters, they were rough warriors. They weren’t protesters. They were Iranian-backed — some were from Iraq — but they were Iranian-backed.”
“Those people are going to do serious harm,” he continued. “There were soldiers, there were warriors, and we stopped it. That was a totally organized plot, and you know who organized it. That man right now is not around any longer. And he had more than that particular embassy in mind.”
Days before that, rocket attacks blamed on an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia had killed a U.S. contractor, an assault that the Trump administration also relied on as justification for taking out Soleimani.
The general and leader of Iran’s elite Quds force had long been involved in campaigns targeting Americans and creating chaos in the region. He has been blamed for what U.S. officials have identified as hundreds of American deaths.
Several Democratic lawmakers said a possible embassy bombing wasn't mentioned in a closed-door intelligence briefing conducted by top administration officials Wednesday.
House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he'd "seen no evidence of that," though he added "that doesn't mean that the evidence doesn't exist."
Still, he continued, "nobody that I've talked to in any setting — and I've talked to quite a few people in the White House — has said that."
Moreover, he said, he'd been given the impression that the U.S. was unaware of any specific targets of Soleimani.
"It's news to me in particular because it has been communicated to me that there weren't specific targets, that the intel that we had did not cite specific targets, just more of a broad thing," he explained. "So if the president had evidence of the specific target, that has not been communicated to us."
"Soleimani has always been trying to attack the United States embassy in Baghdad," said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). "In fact the embassy in Baghdad received much more regular attacks from Iraqi militias ten years ago than they do today."
"That's news to me," he said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal called it "inconsistent" with the information provided to lawmakers on Wednesday.
"The Trump Administration keeps Congress & the American people in the dark under the guise of 'classification' & then the President throws it away—making a claim inconsistent with the meager information provided at yesterday's Senate briefing," Blumenthal wrote on Twitter.
Connor O'Brien and Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.