Esper Says He Saw No Evidence Iran Targeted 4 Embassies, as Story Shifts Again

The disparity between the defense secretary and President Trump added another twist to an ever-evolving explanation for a strike on an Iranian general that led to the brink of war.

They had to kill him because he was planning an “imminent” attack. But how imminent they could not say. Where they could not say. When they could not say. And really, it was more about what he had already done. Or actually it was to stop him from hitting an American embassy. Or four embassies. Or not.

For 10 days, President Trump and his team have struggled to describe the reasoning behind the decision to launch a drone strike against Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security forces, propelling the two nations to the brink of war. Officials agree they had intelligence indicating danger, but the public explanations have shifted by the day and sometimes by the hour.

On Sunday came the latest twist. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he was never shown any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as Mr. Trump had claimed just two days earlier.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “I share the president’s view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”

The sharp disparity between the president and his defense secretary only added to the public debate over the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general and whether there was sufficient justification for an operation that escalated tensions with Iran, aggravated relations with European allies and prompted Iraq to threaten to expel United States forces. General Suleimani was deemed responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers in the Iraq war more than a decade ago, but it was not clear whether he had specific plans for a mass-casualty attack in the near future.

The Trump Administration’s Fluctuating Explanations for the Suleimani Strike

While agreeing that General Suleimani was generally a threat, Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, have said the administration has not provided evidence even in classified briefings to back up the claim of an “imminent” attack, nor has it mentioned that four embassies were targeted. Even some Pentagon officials have said privately that they were unaware of any intelligence suggesting that a large-scale attack was in the offing.

But senior government officials with the best access to intelligence have insisted there was ample cause for concern even if it has not been communicated clearly to the public. Gina Haspel, the director of the C.I.A., and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — who were both appointed by Mr. Trump but are career officials without a political history — have said privately and forcefully that the intelligence was compelling and that they were convinced a major attack was coming.

The challenge for the Trump administration is persuading the public, which has been skeptical about intelligence used to justify military action since President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 based on what turned out to be inaccurate intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Trump himself has made clear in other circumstances that he does not trust the intelligence agencies that he is now citing to justify his decision to eliminate General Suleimani. Moreover, given his long history of falsehoods and distortions, Mr. Trump has his own credibility issues that further cloud the picture. All of which means the administration’s failure to provide a consistent explanation has sown doubts and exposed it to criticism.

“If indeed the strike was taken to disrupt an imminent threat to U.S. persons — and that picture seems to be getting murkier by the minute — the case should be made to Congress and to the public, consistent with national security,” said Lisa Monaco, a former senior F.B.I. official and homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama. “Failure to do so hurts our credibility and deterrence going forward.”

Intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive data collection, have said there was no single definitive piece of information about a coming attack. Instead, C.I.A. officers described a “mosaic effect,” multiple scraps of information that came together indicating that General Suleimani was organizing proxy forces around the region, including in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, to attack American embassies and bases.

Several officials said they did not have enough concrete information to describe such a threat as “imminent,” despite the administration’s assertion, but they did see a worrying pattern. A State Department official has privately said it was a mistake for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to use the word “imminent” because it suggested a level of specificity that was not borne out by the intelligence.

“I have not seen the intelligence, just to be clear, but it is sometimes possible for the reporting of planned attacks to be very compelling even without specificity of time, target or method,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former acting C.I.A. director. “In a sense, that is the story of 9/11. Our reporting gave us high confidence that a big attack was coming — and we so warned — but we were unable to nail down key details.”

Mr. McLaughlin said that the administration may well have had intelligence adequate to compel action, but that it was a separate question whether killing General Suleimani was the most effective response, as opposed to hardening targets or choosing a less provocative option.

John B. Bellinger III, who was the top lawyer for the National Security Council and later the State Department under Mr. Bush, said the president would have legal authority to strike under the Constitution whether or not there was fear of an imminent attack.

But under the United Nations Charter, the United States cannot use force in another country without its consent or the authority of the Security Council except in response to an armed attack or a threat of an imminent armed attack. “So under international law, the attack on Suleimani would not have been lawful unless he presented an imminent threat,” Mr. Bellinger said.

Claims that an imminent attack could take “hundreds of American lives,” as Mr. Pompeo put it right after the drone strike, have also generated doubts because no attack in the Middle East over the past two decades, even at the height of the Iraq war, has ever resulted in so many American casualties at once in part because embassies and bases have become so fortified.

The contrast in descriptions of what the administration knew and what it did not came in quick succession on a single Fox News show last week.

On Thursday night, Mr. Pompeo, while sticking by his description of an “imminent” attack, acknowledged that the information was not concrete. “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” he told the host, Laura Ingraham.

The next day, in a separate interview, Mr. Trump told Ms. Ingraham that in fact he did know where. “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” he said.

That left administration officials like Mr. Esper in an awkward position when they hit the talk show circuit on Sunday. While the defense secretary revealed on CBS that he had not seen intelligence indicating four embassies were targeted, he sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said, seeming to make a distinction between belief and specific intelligence. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.

“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”

“But,” he added, “we had very strong intelligence.”

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics after the strike, said on CNN that he worried about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”

“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck a similar tone, telling ABC’s “This Week” that “I don’t think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States” about the reasons for killing General Suleimani.

On “Face the Nation,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused the president and his top aides of “fudging” the intelligence.

“Frankly, I think what they are doing is overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows,” Mr. Schiff said. Officials briefing the so-called Gang of Eight top congressional leaders never said that four embassies were targeted, he added. “In the view of the briefers, there was plotting, there was an effort to escalate being planned, but they didn’t have specificity.”

Is Trump Duping Putin?

Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to think that he has been using his strategically incompetent American counterpart to advance his ends. In fact, Donald Trump has dragged everyone into his reality-TV world, in which sensation, exaggeration, and misinformation all serve his only true goal: to be the center of attention.

But the truth is that neither Democrats nor the media have actually had much success in reining in Trump. As for the Republicans, who control both houses of the US Congress, even once-vocal opponents – such as Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz – now lick Trump’s boots. With Trump having bullied his party into submission, it seems unlikely that his failure to deliver for Putin can be blamed on others.

The more likely explanation for Trump’s betrayal of Putin is that his warm rhetoric was, like everything else that comes out of his mouth, driven by his desire for ratings, not any actual interest in – let alone commitment to – helping the Kremlin. Consider how Trump’s early overtures to another strongman, Chinese President Xi Jinping, gave way to a full-blown trade war against that country, which Trump now portrays as America’s enemy.

.. Of course, the world has come to expect broken promises and capriciousness from Trump. What is surprising is how Putin has misread the situation so badly. How could such a keen observer of the US, whose former career as a spy honed his ability to decipher people’s motives and intentions, fail to recognize the falseness of Trump’s promises?

.. If anyone knows that actions speak louder than words, it is Putin, whose words often include transparent denials of documented wrongdoing, from meddling in the US election to violating treaties. Yet Putin continues to ignore Trump’s actions and seeks for more meetings “to touch base” with the ever-complimentary US president, such as at this month’s World War I centenary in Paris or the G20 summit in Argentina.

Putin seems to think that he has been using the strategically incompetent Trump to advance his ends. In fact, Trump has dragged everyone into his reality-TV world, in which sensation, exaggeration, and misinformation all serve his only true goal: to be the last “survivor” on the island. By the time Putin finally realizes that he has been duped, the world will probably have paid a high price in terms of political stability, strategic security, and environmental damage. And Putin will have to pay it, too.

How Trump bobs and weaves to avoid the truth

As he so often does, President Trump falsely declared on “60 Minutes” that North Korea and the United States were going to war before he stepped in to thwart it.

Interviewer Lesley Stahl was having none of it. “We were going to war?”

Trump immediately retreated to safer ground, expressing a view rather than trying to assert a fact: “I think it was going to end up in war,” he said, before moving on to his “impression” of the situation.

The 26-minute interview that aired Oct. 14 was typical Trump — bobbing and weaving through a litany of false claims, misleading assertions and exaggerated facts. Trump again demonstrated what The Fact Checker has long documented: His rhetoric is fundamentally based on making statements that are not true, and he will be as deceptive as his audience will allow.

.. Trump resorting to all of his favored moves to sidestep the truth.

.. On Stahl’s first question, about whether Trump still thinks climate change is a hoax, the president dodged by saying “something’s happening.” He then completely reversed course and declared that climate change is not a hoax and that “I’m not denying climate change.”

.. Trump also falsely said the climate will change back again, even though the National Climate Assessment approved by his White House last year said that there was no turning back. He said he did not know whether climate change was man-made, though the same report said “there is no convincing alternative” posed by the evidence.

.. Trump did his usual shrug when asked whether North Korea is building more nuclear missiles. “Well, nobody really knows. I mean, people are saying that.” Among the people who are saying that are U.S. intelligence agencies, who have concluded that North Korea does not intend to fully surrender its nuclear stockpile and is instead working to conceal its weapons and production facilities.

.. Even when he adjusts his rhetoric, at times contradicting what he has just said, Trump almost always appears to believe firmly in what he is saying.

.. On trade, the president continues to suggest that deficits mean the United States is losing money: “I told President Xi we cannot continue to have China take $500 billion a year out of the United States.”

That’s wrong. The trade deficit just means Americans are buying more Chinese products than the Chinese are buying from the United States, not that the Chinese are somehow stealing U.S. money.

.. Trump also continues to misstate the trade deficit with China. It’s not $500 billion, as he told Stahl; it was $335 billion in 2017

.. Curiously, he denied to Stahl that he ever said he was engaged in a trade war with China, even though he has said and tweeted it many times, including on Fox News last week.

.. He also falsely said that “the European Union was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade.” That’s a misreading of history, at best. The E.U. got its start shortly after World War II as the European Coal and Steel Community — an early effort to bind together bitter enemies such as Germany and France in a common economic space to promote peace.

.. Trump surfaced another old favorite knock on U.S. allies — “we shouldn’t be paying almost the entire cost of NATO to protect Europe.” Actually, the United States pays 22 percent of NATO’s common fund. Trump keeps counting U.S. defense spending devoted to patrolling the Pacific Ocean and other parts of the world as part of NATO funding.

When it was pointed out that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former general who served in the military for 44 years, says he believes NATO had kept the peace for 70 years, Trump sniffed, “I think I know more about it than he does.”

.. Questioned about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump conceded that “they meddled.” But he added, “I think China meddled, too.” When Stahl said he was “diverting the whole Russia thing,” Trump insisted he was not. “I’m not doing anything,” he demurred. “I’m saying Russia, but I’m also saying China.”

There is no evidence China engaged in the same disinformation effort as Russia, which intelligence agencies have said was designed to swing the election toward Trump.

.. Finally, Trump continued his habit of mischaracterizing what his predecessor did. He claimed that Barack Obama “gave away” the Crimea region of Ukraine, when actually Russia seized it and Obama then led an effort to impose sanctions in response.

.. In one of the testier back-and-forths, Trump tried to shut down Stahl with one line that was indisputably true: “I’m president,” he said, “and you’re not.”

The Don and His Badfellas

The Trumps have often been compared to a mob family. Certainly, in the White House, they have created a dark alternative universe with an inverted ethical code, where the main value is loyalty to the godfather above all else.

An anti-Trump group called Mad Dog PAC has a billboard reading: “MAGA, Mobsters Are Governing America.”

.. As Michael Daly noted in The Daily Beast, “Traditionally, rats begin wearing a wire after they get jammed up.”

.. In the taped call, Cohen tells Trump that he has talked to the mogul’s trusted money manager and “Apprentice” guest star, Allen Weisselberg, about how to set up a company to reimburse David Pecker, the National Enquirer owner, for buying off Trump goomah Karen McDougal. Federal investigators in Manhattan now want to interview Weisselberg.

“Long term, this could be the most damaging,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me, “because it gets into Trump’s wallet.”

.. Cohen the Fixer claims Trump knew about the Russian meeting during the campaign with his son and Paul Manafort. The president hit the mattresses on Twitter, denying it all.

.. Rudy Giuliani has somersaulted from a RICO-happy prosecutor to a man acting like a Mafia lawyer, telling Chris Cuomo that Cohen is an “incredible liar” when only three months ago he pronounced him “an honest, honorable lawyer.”

.. If the White House seems more and more like “Goodfellas,” it is not an accident.

Trump has a very cinematic sense of himself,” O’Brien said. Like many on social media, he is driven to be the star of his own movie. He even considered going to film school in L.A. before he settled into his father’s business.

.. O’Brien recalled that Trump told him that he thought Clint Eastwood was the greatest movie star. “He and Melania model their squints on Eastwood,” the biographer noted. Trump also remarked, while they were watching “Sunset Boulevard” on the Trump plane, that a particular scene was amazing: the one where Norma Desmond obsessively watches her silent films and cries: “Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them!”

.. Trump is drawn to people who know how to dominate a room and exaggerated displays of macho, citing three of his top five movies as

  • “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,”
  • “Goodfellas” and
  • “The Godfather.”

.. As a young real estate developer, he would hang out at Yankee Stadium and study the larger-than-life figures in the V.I.P. box:

  • George Steinbrenner,
  • Lee Iacocca,
  • Frank Sinatra,
  • Roy Cohn,
  • Rupert Murdoch,
  • Cary Grant.

He was intent on learning how they grabbed the limelight.

.. “In his first big apartment project, Trump’s father had a partner connected to the Genovese and Gambino crime families,” said Michael D’Antonio, another Trump biographer. “He dealt with mobbed-up suppliers and union guys for decades.

.. “When Trump was a little boy, wandering around job sites with his dad — which was the only time he got to spend with him — he saw a lot of guys with broken noses and rough accents. And I think he is really enchanted by base male displays of strength. Think about ‘Goodfellas’ — people who prevail by cheating and fixing and lying. Trump doesn’t have the baseline intellect and experience to be proficient at governing. His proficiency is this mob style of bullying and tough-guy talk.”

As Steve Bannon noted approvingly, Trump has a Rat Pack air, and as O’Brien said, Trump was the sort of guy who kept gold bullion in his office.

.. Trump’s like a mobster, D’Antonio said, in the sense that he “does not believe that anyone is honest. He doesn’t believe that your motivations have anything to do with right and wrong and public service. It’s all about self-interest and a war of all against all. He’s turning America into Mulberry Street in the ’20s, where you meet your co-conspirators in the back of the candy store.”