The official line from the White House is that Donald Trump approved last week's mission to kill Qassim Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, in order to prevent an "imminent" attack. According to the administration, the president's decision was bolstered by U.S. intelligence.
At face value, that official line has been met with skepticism, in large part because Trump and his team have earned a reputation for habitual lying. But additional reporting over the weekend has cast further doubt on the dubious White House version of events. The New York Times published this report yesterday, for example.
In the chaotic days leading to the death of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran's most powerful commander, top American military officials put the option of killing him -- which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq -- on the menu they presented to President Trump.
They didn't think he would take it. In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.... By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.
Right off the bat, it's worth pausing to acknowledge an obvious truth: if the intelligence pointed to an "imminent" attack that could only be prevented by an airstrike targeting Soleimani, effectively leaving Trump with no other credible options, then top Pentagon officials wouldn't have been "stunned" by the president's decision. Indeed, they also wouldn't have presented Trump with such a radical move under the assumption that he wouldn't be so reckless as to actually choose it.
The same Times report added that there were "disputes" within the administration about the "significance" of the intelligence. The same article added that some officials "voiced private skepticism about the rationale" behind the strike, with one describing the U.S. intelligence as "thin."
A separate New York Times report cited a Defense Department official who said there was "nothing new in the threat presented by the Iranian general."
To be sure, Team Trump's absence of credibility, coupled with the political context, made it difficult to take seriously the White House's line about an imminent attack, necessitating an immediate assault. But the reporting brings the problem into sharper focus: Team Trump's official story about one of the president's most dangerous decisions doesn't appear to be true.
All of which leads to an important follow-up question: if the airstrike wasn't needed to prevent an imminent attack, why exactly did the president green-light such a radical offensive?