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President Donald Trump in a tweet Monday attacked Democrats and the media for scrutinizing his argument that he was justified in ordering the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani because he posed an imminent threat to US citizens.
Trump tweeted that the question of whether Soleimani posed an imminent threat "doesn't really matter because of his horrible past."
Legal experts say the question of whether Soleimani presented an imminent threat really does matter in deciding whether Trump had the legal grounds to order the assassination of a foreign general in another country.
Some experts claim that the by ordering the killing on a flimsy legal basis Trump has set a dangerous precedent, endangering US officials abroad.
President Donald Trump's key argument that Iranian general Qassem Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the US was crumbling Monday, when in a classic Trumpian show of disdain for the rules he declared that it was never really that important anyway.
"The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was 'imminent' or not, & was my team in agreement," Trump tweeted.
"The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn't really matter because of his horrible past!"
Trump and key administration officials had for days argued that the president's decision to assassinate Soleimani by drone strike earlier in January were justified because he posed an "imminent threat" to US forces in the Middle East. But when pressed on the details, they were less than convincing.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been unable to specify a timeline for the threatened attacks in a press conference Thursday, shortly after claiming they were imminent. And in an interview with CNN Sunday Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he had seen no intelligence backing Trump's claim that four US embassies had been under threat of imminent attack.
The State Department was also apparently unaware of such threats to US embassies.
So why bother making the argument that Soleimani posed an imminent threat, if it never really mattered all along?
The answer, legal experts say, is that it puts the Trump administration on stronger legal ground as it faces scrutiny for bypassing Congress to order the killing.
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
Writing in The Atlantic, Oona Hathaway, a professor of international law at Yale law school, had argued that the only legal route Trump could take to get round the requirement for congressional and UN Security Council approval for the military action would be to show that it was taken in self defense.
"In both cases, the exception is narrow," she writes. "The threat must be so extreme and imminent that it would be unreasonable to seek the necessary approvals before taking action to defend the country."
Reviewing emerging flaws in the Trump administration's arguments justifying the assassination, she wrote that: "It does not seem there was any imminent threat justifying unilateral action by the president."
Gary Solis, a Marine and retired West Point professor of law, told Quartz that under laws passed after the September 11 terror attacks cited by the administration to justify killing Soleimani, the US would have to show he posed an "imminent" threat.
He noted that just to show he was planning attacks would not be sufficient as Soleimani was an Iranian general, and planning attacks is just what generals do.
Solis noted, however, that what is considered imminent is legally vague, with some international courts saying it could encapsulate a period of several months.
This, perhaps, explains Pompeo's reluctance to provide a specific timeframe while also insisting that the threat from Soleimani was "imminent."
Trump seems to have rendered Pompeo's defense irrelevant Monday, but it's unclear what US lawmakers can do in face of Trump's public flouting of US and international law.
The Democrat-led House could move to hold Trump accountable for the decision if it is indeed found that no "imminent" danger was posed, but in a Congress deeply divided along partisan lines it's a move that would likely run aground.
For Solis, the full consequences of Trump's decision to kill the military leader of a nation with which the US is not at war in possible breach of the law sets a dangerous precedent, and one whose full ramifications have yet to be felt.
"How would we feel if Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was killed on a visit to Canada in a Canadian airport?" he told Quartz.
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