In the immediate aftermath of last week's U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, touching off a crisis in the region, Donald Trump and his team had a coherent explanation for the military offensive: the mission was necessary, the Republican administration said, to prevent an "imminent" attack.
What's more, according to Team Trump, the president's decision was bolstered by persuasive and actionable U.S. intelligence. At face value, this is a straightforward argument, notwithstanding suspicions about the timing of the airstrike and the White House's non-existent credibility.
A week later, however, that explanation has effectively collapsed into a contradictory, self-defeating mess. The Washington Post noted in an analysis yesterday:
The Trump administration initially said Soleimani was planning "imminent" attacks on Americans and U.S. interests in the Middle East, but it hasn't provided much in the way of elaboration. It has since oscillated between pointing to the imminence of such attacks and suggesting that the strike was retaliatory for what Soleimani had already done. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to say whether the attacks were days or weeks away. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, unambiguously endorsed the idea of imminent attacks, but he also said the intelligence didn't "exactly say who, what, when, where."
And now, in the past 24 hours, it has become even more opaque.
What's more, in the hours that followed the publication of the report, the situation managed to get slightly worse.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo started backing off his earlier rhetoric about an "imminent" attack, and last night, the Kansas Republican complicated matters, conceding during a Fox News interview that the administration officials didn't know when or where Iran might act, effectively negating the "imminent" talking point.
On the intelligence front, the president's national security team sparked bipartisan pushback on Wednesday with congressional briefings that were reportedly hollow and unpersuasive, and Vice President Mike Pence made matters slightly worse yesterday telling NBC News the administration has "compelling" evidence, but they can't share it with Congress.
And then the whole mess started getting weirder.