Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Sunday said that he hadn't seen evidence to support President Donald Trump’s claim that a top Iranian general killed by a U.S. airstrike was “actively planning” imminent attacks on four American embassies, saying that he “didn’t see” specific intelligence to support that assertion.
In an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that aired on Friday, the president justified the decision to kill former Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani by telling Ingraham “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies.” This was an expansion on previous comments, as Trump had told reporters earlier in the week that Soleimani was “looking to blow up our embassy” in Baghdad and later said at a campaign rally that he was “actively planning new attacks” on multiple embassies.
Members of Congress, however, are saying intelligence briefings did not mention threats to embassies, and senior Trump officials have stated that they “were only aware of vague intelligence about a plot against the embassy in Baghdad and that the information did not suggest a fully formed plot.”
During an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Esper noted that while the president pointed out that he “believed” the attacks on multiple embassies was imminent, there wasn’t actually any direct evidence to support his assertion.
“The president said that he believed that there probably and could have been attacks against additional embassies,” Esper told host Margaret Brennan. “I shared that view. I know other members of the national security team shared that view.”
“‘Probably and could have been,’ that is—that sounds more like an assessment that a specific tangible threat with a decisive piece of intelligence,” Brennan reacted.
“Well, the president didn’t say there was a tangible—he didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence,” the Pentagon chief replied.
“Are you saying there wasn’t one?” Brennan wondered.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper admitted. “What I’m saying is I shared the president’s view that probably, my expectation is they were going to go after our embassies.”
In a separate interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Esper reiterated his insistence that the president never said he had “specific intelligence” that Soleimani was targeting four embassies but was merely expressing his “belief,” a belief that he himself shared.
CNN host Jake Tapper, meanwhile, wanted to know if the president was “embellishing” the imminence of the threats, noting that some members of Congress have expressed concern that this could make things more dangerous for troops abroad.
“I don’t believe so,” Esper responded. “The bottom line is we had exquisite intelligence that could only be shared with the Gang of Eight. So I understand the frustration of many members of Congress. But what was shared with that Gang of Eight—I spoke to one of the briefers. The briefer told me that most, nearly all of the members of that Gang of Eights said that the information was persuasive and it should not be shared with the broader membership because of the concerns—it could reveal our sources and methods.”
“But President Trump said it on TV on Friday?” Tapper shot back, adding that it “doesn’t make sense” that Esper can’t tell something to Congress that Trump is willing to publicly claim on Fox News.
“We briefed Congress, and the Gang of Eight—the legitimate representatives of the broader Congress on affairs like this when you have exquisite intelligence—they were briefed. And I'm not going to go into details of what they were briefed, partly because I wasn't there,” Esper answered.