Washington Watch: The imminent threat behind the Soleimani killing

As administration rationales seemed to shift hourly, Trump dropped “imminent” (which he misspelled “eminent”) and insisted “it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past.”

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump waves to supporters during a campaign rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tuesday. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump waves to supporters during a campaign rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tuesday.
Make no mistake. Iranian General Qasem Soleimani deserved his fate. It was long overdue. So why now? It wasn’t really because of any imminent terrorist plot, as President Trump initially said. Iran’s top military leader was a commander, not a field operative. Any operation underway would not have been halted if he’d died by drone, accident or natural causes.
The president and his top advisers have a variety of shifting answers to the question “why now?” Trump told Laura Ingraham on Fox News that he gave the order in the face of immediate threats of attacks on four unnamed US embassies.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said there “probably and could have been” such threats, but he said he never saw them. And senators said top administration officials briefing them behind closed doors didn’t say that either. Esper vaguely defined the assassination as a deterrent.
As administration rationales seemed to shift hourly, Trump dropped “imminent” (which he misspelled “eminent”) and insisted “it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past.”
NBC reported Trump authorized the hit on Soleimani seven months ago but kept it on hold for the right occasion. That apparently came on January 3.
So, what was the imminent threat, the right occasion?
The most imminent threat to Trump was not whatever Soleimani might have been plotting but the one at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue where the Senate is preparing for his impeachment trial, which could begin this week.
The assassination was familiar Trump tactic, a diversionary move to distract attention from negative coverage, this time it’s his impeachment, and to give his ratings a boost.
Trump reportedly told friends he felt under pressure to make a dramatic move against terrorism, and Soleimani in particular, that would strengthen support from GOP Senate hawks in the upcoming impeachment trial and help his reelection.
He wasn’t afraid they’d vote to remove him – there appears little chance in a Republican Senate caucus that has become his obedient servants – but worried they might agree to hear witnesses Trump wants muzzled. He prefers a quick, unanimous Republican acquittal to back his defense that it was all a partisan “hoax” and, as he repeatedly claims, he did nothing wrong.
Trump wanted a ratings boost for killing the man he called the “world’s No. 1 terrorist leader,” and his reelection campaign quickly ran nearly 800 distinct Facebook ads boasting about the assassination and soliciting donations.
Outspoken Trump critic George Conway (husband of Kellyanne) tweeted “... using his foreign policy authority for domestic political gain is the offense Trump is being impeached for.” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote that reports suggesting Trump acted out of “domestic political considerations” constitute “a grave dereliction of duty.”
TRUMP REFUSED to give congressional leaders a heads-up (except his pal Sen. Lindsey Graham while they were golfing) because, he said, they’d leak it although there is no record of that ever happening in prior administrations.
The only foreign leader to get advance warning (via Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) was Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister was also the first, and possibly only, foreign ally to endorse the killing, praising Trump for “acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively.” That may be because, as NBC reported, the US got help in the operation from Israeli intelligence.
The Israeli leader had long wanted to see the US strike Iran. More than anyone he persuaded Trump to abrogate the Iran nuclear pact. He also shares something else with Trump. He is facing a tough reelection this year and is under indictment for fraud and corruption and facing his own trial.
Trump expected taking out Soleimani would bring him the applause and ratings lift he got when announcing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed. Instead, a clear majority of Americans thought he was being “reckless” in dealing with Iran and that the assassination made the United States less safe, according to a USA Today/Ipsos Poll this week.
That triggered even more reckless and unpresidential attacks on his critics, particularly Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Calling her “crazy Nancy” and saying she is “not operating with a full deck” failed to provoke her anger. It seemed the hotter he got, the cooler she was, getting deeper under his thin skin.
“Did NOTHING wrong,” he whined. In another tweet he repeated that the impeachment is a “hoax” and the Senate should dismiss it without a trial.
Pelosi responded, “The president is impeached for life, regardless of any gamesmanship on the part of Mitch McConnell. There is nothing the Senate can do to ever erase that.”
Trump retweeted a photoshopped image depicting Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish, dressed in Muslim garb in front of an Iranian flag and labeled “Democrats 2020.” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham justified it, saying Trump was “making clear” that the Democrats are “parroting Iranian talking points and almost taking the side of terrorists.”
In that one tweet Trump reinforced the perception that he is an antisemite and an Islamophobe. The ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt called the president’s action “offensive... repulsive... bigotry.”
As his trial begins in the Senate, Donald Trump will work harder to divert attention from revelations that will come out about his corruption, obstruction and obfuscation. That could put this country in an even more precarious position in a seething, complex world.