WASHINGTON (CN) — House Democrats are demanding answers from President Donald Trump on why he ordered the targeted killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, after the administration failed to explain the purported imminent threat that triggered the assassination.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined an invitation to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, an absence Democrats said was the loudest testimony in the room.
“It speaks volumes. It shows that the secretary of state cannot defend the decision-making process that led us to this point,” said Congressman Brad Sherman, D-Calif.
The White House originally leaned heavily on the claim that Trump ordered the drone strike because Soleimani was coordinating an imminent attack on U.S. targets, later specifying a possible strike on four U.S. embassies.
But on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he did not see specific evidence of an imminent attack prior to Trump green-lighting the attack. Last week, some Senate Republicans joined with Democrats from both chambers calling for the administration to supply stronger intelligence behind the strike.
Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said the administration has failed to provide justification for the attack, calling into question its legality.
“In fact, we didn’t even know if it was imminent — which makes you wonder if the word ‘imminent’ still has any meaning,” he said Tuesday.
Engel added the Trump administration’s reliance on the post-9/11 law that authorized the 2002 Iraq war is especially dubious.
Emphasizing that the Obama administration had designated Soleimani a terrorist, Republicans said Trump was compelled to take out the leader. But expert witnesses pushed against the claim, saying a terrorist designation by the U.S. to implement sanctions does not open the door to take lethal action.
Democrats repeatedly recognized the blood of Americans on Soleimani’s hands. Engel said he would not tolerate Republicans on the committee accusing their colleagues across the aisle of mourning the Iranian’s death.
“We are all patriotic Americans — Democrat and Republican alike,” he said. “We’re asking these questions because the American people don’t want to go to war with Iran.”
But ranking member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he spoke with Trump on Monday and the president does not want war with Iran.
“I wish Democrats would join in praising the president as Republicans did when Osama bin Laden was killed,” McCaul said.
GOP members on the committee repeatedly argued that frozen assets the Obama administration released to Iran as part of the Iran nuclear deal funded terrorist attacks that Soleimani masterminded. Expert witnesses said the Republican claim was unfounded.
Democrats meanwhile called for the Trump administration to lay out the facts. Representative Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said he has yet to see classified or public information that provides “one shred of evidence” for Trump’s claims of an imminent threat.
“This administration does not even have the guts to make the case for what it did,” Meeks said. “Whether it was preemptive, preventive, defensive or simply retaliation, Congress must have the facts surrounding this assassination.”
Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department director of policy planning, said the Trump administration has failed to propose diplomatic alternatives in Iran since pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal and imposing unilateral sanctions.
Haas says he fears the U.S. failing to provide justification for the drone strike that killed Soleimani in Iraq will lead to open conflict across the region with few red lines.
“The president tweeted yesterday that the question of imminent doesn’t really matter,” Haas said. “I would respectfully disagree. Imminence is central to the concept of preemption, which is treated in international law as a legitimate form of self-defense.”
But Republicans in lockstep backed Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani, a national hero in Iran, arguing Iran is responsible for dozens of attacks on U.S. troops in recent months.
“Americans had to leave Iraq because Soleimani was killed?” said Representative Scott Perry, R-Pen. “Oh well! I guess you can stay and take your chances!”
But Columbia Law professor Avril Haines said the Iraqi parliament voting to expel American troops, after the U.S. strike on Iraqi soil killing Soleimani, means the U.S. effort to maintain stability in the country may be unsustainable.
“This is, in many respects, exactly what Soleimani had wanted,” Haines said.