Updated Jan 12, 2020

Esper says he "didn't see" specific evidence of Iranian threats to 4 embassies

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told CBS News' "Face the Nation" Sunday that he "didn't see" specific evidence that Iran was targeting four U.S. embassies, as President Trump claimed in an interview with Fox News, but that he does share the president's overall concerns.

Why it matters: The controversy over Trump's comments reflects a broader mistrust over the administration's claims that there was intelligence showing Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani posed an "imminent" threat to U.S. forces.

  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday that the administration did not brief Congress that Iran was allegedly plotting attacks on four U.S. embassies.
  • House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said on CBS shortly after Esper that the Gang of Eight — a group of top lawmakers who can be briefed on classified intelligence by the executive branch — was not told about the threats either. Schiff accused Trump of "fudging" intelligence.
  • Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) tweeted after Esper's appearance: "The administration didn’t present evidence to Congress regarding even one embassy. The four embassies claim seems to be totally made up. And they have never presented evidence of imminence—a necessary condition to act without congressional approval—with respect to any of this."

The "Face the Nation" exchange:

ESPER: "What the president said was he believed that there probably could have been attacks against additional embassies. I shared that view. I know other members of the national security team shared that view. That's why I deployed thousands of American paratroopers to the Middle East to reinforce our embassy in Baghdad and other sites throughout the region."
MARGARET BRENNAN: "Probably and could have been — that sounds more like an assessment than a specific, tangible threat with a decisive piece of intelligence."
ESPER: "Well, the president didn't say there was a tangible, he didn't cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said it he probably, he believed —"
BRENNAN: "Are you saying there wasn't one?"
ESPER: "I didn't see one with regard to four embassies."

Go deeper: Trump's national security adviser claims Iran more likely to negotiate now

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GOP Sen. Mike Lee says Iran briefing did not mention plots against 4 embassies

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday that the Trump administration did not brief him and other members of Congress that Iran was allegedly plotting attacks on four U.S. embassies, as President Trump claimed in an interview with Fox News on Friday.

Why it matters: The administration has come under fire for declining to provide specifics about the nature of the "imminent" threat that prompted the president to order the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

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Why it matters: The administration's mixed messaging on the justification for the airstrike on Soleimani has created doubt among some lawmakers about the "imminent threat" the administration claimed he posed to U.S. forces in the Middle East.

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The big picture: Iran is under growing pressure at home and abroad, while President Trump appears emboldened. But Trump is also facing criticism in Washington for failing to substantiate claims of an "imminent" threat, and overseas for his role in driving the escalation.

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