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Pressed for credible airstrike explanation, Team Trump struggles

The more the White House can't explain why it launched such a dangerous airstrike, the easier it is to believe the worst of all possible explanations.


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.

Yesterday afternoon, Donald Trump personally threw out a brand new claim, arguing at an unrelated event that Soleimani and his allies "were looking to blow up our embassy" in Iraq. A few hours later, the American president headlined a campaign rally in which he assured supporters that, actually, Soleimani was "looking very seriously" at attacking multiple U.S. embassies, "not just the embassy in Baghdad."

At the same event, Mike Pence suggested last week's airstrike was actually a retaliatory measure in response to the death of an American contractor recently killed by "Iranian-backed militias" in Iraq.

A degree of dishonesty and incoherence is to be expected when Trump and his team address any issue, but the Soleimani airstrike wasn't just some random incident. The president, facing an impeachment crisis, launched a dangerous mission -- which has already created serious repercussions -- for reasons we still don't know and the administration is struggling mightily to explain.

The good news is, Team Trump isn't remaining silent. The bad news is, Team Trump is throwing out all kinds of conflicting explanations that seem to change by the day -- and in some cases, the hour.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but the more the White House can't explain why it launched such a dangerous airstrike, the easier it is to believe the worst of all possible explanations: the increasingly credible allegation that the president risked a war solely for domestic political reasons.

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