It’s still unclear what prompted President Trump to order the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3. Members of Congress say they haven’t been show evidence that Soleimani presented an “imminent” threat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested “imminent” might not be the right word, and on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien walked back Trump’s assertion that U.S. intelligence predicted Soleimani had planned to attack four U.S. embassies.
But it wasn’t a new idea for Trump, The Washington Post reported Sunday. Trump first brought up killing Soleimani in the spring of 2017, at the start of his presidency, and he revived the idea “several times again in the months and years to follow.” Esper’s predecessor, retired Gen. James Mattis, “resisted any action” on Soleimani and probably “wouldn’t have presented the option to the president,” former White House officials told the Post. According to The New York Times, Esper and Trump’s new national security team presented killing Soleimani as the “extreme” option and were shocked Trump chose it.
Mattis wasn’t alone in trying to check what he viewed as Trump’s rash impulses. Fellow retired Marine general John Kelly, then Trump’s chief of staff, “regularly told military officials that he wanted to talk to Trump before they actually carried out one of his orders and sometimes told them to hold off,” the Post reports, quoting one former senior administration who explained that Trump would “get spun up, and if you bought some time, you could get him calmed down, and then explain to him what his decision might do.” Trump is now more comfortable following his instincts.
Trump initially passed on killing Soleimani in late December, opting instead for airstrikes that killed 25 members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia. But when Trump watched TV coverage of militia supporters attacking the perimeter of the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, “he’s thinking about Benghazi” and “he’s also thinking about the 1979 attack on the American Embassy in Iran that led to the hostage crisis,” the Times‘ Helene Cooper recounts. “He’s getting more and more angry, according to his aides, and then he calls for his menu of options again, and this time, he picks the extreme option,” killing Soleimani.
On TV Sunday, O’Brien explained Trump’s decision like this: “We made it very clear this was not going to be Tehran 1979, this was not going to be Benghazi.”