Defense secretary Mark Esper sought on Sunday to explain Donald Trump’s assertion that Tehran was planning attacks on four American embassies in the Middle East before the US killed Iranian Gen Qassem Suleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad.
Trump claimed on Fox News on Friday that “it would have been four embassies”, prompting criticism from members of Congress who were not briefed before the strike and who say such a threat was not mentioned in a classified briefing on Wednesday.
On Sunday, Esper toured the political talk shows. At first, he attempted to water down the president’s assessment.
Asked on CBS’s Face the Nation if there had been a specific or tangible threat, Esper said: “I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies. What I’m saying is I share the president’s view that, probably, my expectation was that they were going to go after our embassies.”
He added: “We had information that there was going to be an attack within a matter of days that would be broad in scale, in other words more than one country, and that it would be bigger than previous attacks, likely going to take us into open hostilities with Iran.
“We had every expectation to believe this would happen. That threat has been disrupted.”
Suleimani was killed by a drone strike at Baghdad airport on 2 January. Iran responded with missile strikes on US bases in Iraq. It has also admitted accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian airliner over Tehran, killing 176 people.
Esper later appeared to row back, telling CNN’s State of the Union “what the president said with regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well”.
“There was intelligence that there was an intent to target the US embassy in Baghdad,” he said.
Trump has also mentioned the threat to the Baghdad embassy as a motivation for the strike on Suleimani, but congressional criticism of the administration’s justification for precipitating a crisis with Iran remains.
After the classified briefing on Wednesday, Senator Mike Lee of Utah voiced rare Republican criticism of the president.
“I didn’t hear anything about [the four embassies claim],” Lee told CNN on Sunday, “and several of my colleagues have said the same so that was news to me. It certainly wasn’t something I recall being mentioned at the classified briefing.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed Congress was briefed fully on the rationale for the strike on Suleimani.
“I’m sure there was a mention of at least one embassy in that briefing,” Lee said, “because there had been an attack on one of our embassies [in Baghdad, by pro-Iranian militia] leading up to the strike on Suleimani.”
Asked if he agreed with the former Republican now independent congressman Justin Amash that Trump was guilty of an abuse of his power in ordering the strike without informing Congress and getting its approval, Lee said he did not “doubt there was an imminent attack but it’s frustrating not to get the details of the intelligence behind it”.
Trump, meanwhile, continued to seek to capitalise on protests in Iran which broke out after the regime admitted shooting down the airliner in error.
“To the leaders of Iran,” the president tweeted, “DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!”