House Democrats Press White House for Drone-Strike Justification

(Bloomberg) -- House Democrats demanded the White House provide a legal justification for the drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad as administration officials continue to provide divergent accounts for why the attack took place.

“What was the justification,” Representative Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked at a hearing on Tuesday, the first since Iran responded to the killing by firing a barrage of missiles at a U.S.-Iraqi base. “Was there any legal basis whatsoever with this strike that took us to the brink of open hostilities with Iran?”

Engel said that the Trump administration’s main justification for the strike -- that there was an imminent threat that was thwarted by the killing of Soleimani -- “makes you wonder if the word ‘imminent’ still has any meaning.”

Administration comments on the Jan. 3 strike have varied widely. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said Soleimani was planning attacks on U.S. interests that were just “days” away when he was killed, but officials have been unable to provide details on that accusation. President Donald Trump on Monday suggested the justification didn’t matter because of Soleimani’s history, which includes helping send Iraqi-based militias technology for improved explosive devices used to kill and maim U.S. forces.

The debate over the president’s move isn’t entirely partisan. While most Republicans in Congress have lined up behind the Trump administration, praising the strike as not only justified but necessary and effective, there are a few exceptions, particularly in the Senate.

Following a similar measure in the House, Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, two libertarian Republicans, are backing a resolution by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia that would order the president to cease any hostilities against Iran, its government or its military without express authorization from Congress. And two moderate Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Todd Young of Indiana, say they might support the resolution, citing concerns about constitutional authorization for military action.

Paul went a step further Monday when asked whether he agreed with the Trump administration’s justification for the strike.

“No,” he said.

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee will receive a second classified briefing about the strike from administration officials Wednesday. Their briefers will include Brian Hook, the special representative for Iran, and David Schenker, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.

Attorney General William Barr on Monday sought to dispel questions about the legality of Trump’s decision to order the strike, saying “this was a legitimate act of self-defense because it disrupted ongoing attacks that were being conducted, a campaign against Americans, and it re-established deterrence.”

“Frankly, I don’t think it was a close call,” Barr told reporters.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said that the fallout from the strike risks destabilizing the region further.

“The problem was that the strike occurred in Iraq,” Hadley said. “To keep U.S. forces in Iraq, Iraqi authorities will have to manage the domestic political fallout from the strike on Soleimani.”

Democrats also pushed back on characterizations by Trump and others that they are apologists for terrorists.

“We’re not asking these questions because we mourn the death of Soleimani or sympathize with terrorists -- and let me say right now that I will not tolerate any member of this committee making that sort of accusation against other members of this body, even in a general sense,” Engel said. “We are all patriotic Americans -- Democrats and Republicans, alike.”

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