Home/Articles/Politics/Pompeo and Esper Can’t Agree on What ‘Imminent’ Means

Pompeo and Esper Can’t Agree on What ‘Imminent’ Means

Luckily they have Lindsey Graham, who thinks asking questions about any of it is 'empowering the enemy.'

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves the stage to US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper . (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

As the debate over presidential war powers intensifies in Congress, a coterie of key Trump officials hit the Sunday talk shows last weekend to ratchet up the rhetoric on the “imminence” of the attack Iranian General Qassem Soleimani had allegedly planned.

The debate took on added significance after an intelligence briefing provided to House and Senate officials laying out the justification for Soleimani’s killing was blasted by members on both sides of the aisle as “insulting,” “demeaning,” dismissive” of Congress, and “disdainful.”

“It was this attitude that we don’t have to tell Congress, we don’t have to include Congress,” said Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia. He added that after various scenarios were presented by senators, the administration refused to provide any “commitment to ever come to Congress” no matter what the circumstances.

The president cannot take military action against another nation without Congress’s approval, unless it is to defend against an imminent threat to U.S. territories, possessions, or citizens.​

The U.S. is not officially at war with Iran. Yet the Trump administration took the unprecedented step of openly ordering the killing of an Iranian senior state official of a country, without an authorization of military force against that country and without briefing Congress.

On Friday, Pompeo said the attacks were justified because there was “a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qasem Soleimaini, we don’t know precisely when and we don’t precisely where.”

Members of Congress and the media seized upon the quote, charging that it does not sound like the definition of “imminent.”

President Trump himself seemed to grasp the importance of stressing that the attack was “imminent” when he added details Friday on Fox News, asserting that Soleimani was plotting attacks on four U.S. embassies.

“I think it would have been four embassies,” Trump said. “Could have been military bases, could have been a lot of other things too. But it was imminent.”

“We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy,” Trump added. “He was looking very seriously at our embassies, and not just the embassy in Baghdad. I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies.”

But members of Congress say they were not told that four embassies had been targeted. And when Trump officials were asked Sunday whether that claim was true, one by one they were left sputtering.

Pentagon Chief Mark Esper conceded he “didn’t see” intelligence indicating that on CBS’s Face the Nation.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper said. “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,” said Esper.

National Security adviser Robert O’Brien seemed to imply that members of Congress were at fault for not extracting that information from their intelligence briefing.

“It does seem to be a contradiction. [Trump is] 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?” Chris Wallace asked O’Brien on Fox News Sunday.

“I wasn’t at the briefing,” O’Brien answered, “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.”

On Meet the Press, O’Brien asserted that “exquisite” intelligence he was privy to showed that “the threat was imminent.”

When pressed by Chuck Todd about what the U.S. did to protect the other three embassies under alleged imminent threat, O’Brien declined to give details.

“Is ‘imminent’ months, not weeks? Are people misinterpreting that word?” asked Todd.

“I think imminent, generally, means soon, quickly, you know, in process. So you know, I think those threats were imminent. And I don’t want to get into the definition further than that,” said O’Brien.

Pompeo’s claim that an attack could be “imminent” even though the U.S. did not “know where or when” it would come is “pretty inconsistent,” Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, replied Sunday on Meet the Press.

“To me there’s a bigger question too. …This is what really infuriated me about the briefing…[Trump officials] maintain both in private and in public that a vote by Congress in 2003 or 2002 to go after Saddam Hussein was a vote that now allows them to still be in Iraq and do whatever they want, including killing a foreign general from Iran,” said Paul. “And I don’t think that’s what Congress meant in 2002. …We really need to have a debate about whether we should still be in Iraq or in Afghanistan. There needs to be authorization from Congress.”

Paul argued that presidents from both parties have, for decades, usurped Congress’s war powers, and that it is time for Congress to claw them back.

Said Paul, the founders “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—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.”

While the debate over war powers continues, Trump supporters have counter-attacked by questioning the patriotism of those who don’t fall in line with their narrative.

Former White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee-Sanders “can’t think of anything dumber” than Congress deciding matters of war and peace. Nikki Haley accused Democrats of “mourning” General Soleimani. Congressman Doug Collins said Democrats are “in love with terrorists.” And Lindsey Graham said senators like Lee and Paul are “empowering the enemy” by trying to rein in Trump’s war powers.

On Monday, Trump added on Twitter: “The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was ‘imminent’ or not, & was my team in agreement. The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!” If Trump’s team was really in agreement, they sure had a good way of hiding it.

about the author

Barbara Boland is TAC’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Previously, she worked as an editor for the Washington Examiner and for CNS News. She is the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General George Patton in World War II, and her work has appeared on Fox News, The Hill UK Spectator, and elsewhere. Boland is a graduate from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.  Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.

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