On Sunday, responding to CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” consistently attacking President Trump’s decision to kill Iranian general Qassem Soleimani as Tapper kept pressing about the intelligence that showed the arch-terrorist was an imminent threat, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, quietly exasperated, finally snapped, “I’d rather be here discussing this topic with you than going up to Dover Air Force Base and standing there while flag-draped coffins come home.”
The exchange that prompted Esper’s remark went like this:
Tapper: So let’s start with — President Trump said on Friday the Iranians were plotting to target four U.S. embassies, including the one in Baghdad. Other administration officials say the intelligence was not that specific. Was there specific intelligence that the Iranians were plotting to attack four U.S. embassies?
Esper: Well, let me say one thing up front first, to your viewers, to the American people. The United States is safer today than we were just a few short weeks ago. Why? Because we eliminated the world’s foremost terrorist, Qasem Soleimani, who had the blood of hundreds of American service members on his hands.
Secondly, we restored deterrence with Iran. And we did so without American casualties. And, third, we reassured our friends and allies in the region that the United States will stand up and defend our interests. And I want to thank all of our brave service members who are deployed
for what they did, for their brilliance in executing this very important mission.
Tapper: Okay, what about the intelligence? Was there specific intelligence the Iranians were plotting to target four U.S. Embassies?
Esper: There was intelligence that they had; there was an intent to target the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. What the president said with regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well. And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region. I believe that as well, as did other national security team members. That is why I deployed thousands of additional paratroopers to the region to reinforce our embassy in Baghdad and to reinforce other locations throughout the region.
Tapper: Well, Soleimani was a horrible guy, and he killed a lot of innocent people, and he killed a lot of U.S. soldiers. There’s no question about any of that. But…
Esper: For 20-plus years.
Tapper: But the question is not whether he posed a threat in an existential way, because he did. I mean he’d been doing it for years. But was there specific intelligence that he was plotting to attack four U.S. embassies? Did you see any intelligence like that?
Esper: I’m not going to discuss intelligence matters here on the show. Let me just say…
Tapper: The president did, though.
Esper: It’s the president’s prerogative. But what the president said was, he believed. He said he could have been targeting, all those things that I believe as well, that the national security team believes as well. The important thing is this. Soleimani orchestrated, resourced, directed the attacks, escalating up to the December 1 that killed an American. He orchestrated the siege on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and he was planning this much broader plot in multiple countries that would be bigger in scale, and that likely would have taken us to open hostility with Iran. In fact, a very, very senior intelligence community official said to us that the risk of inaction is greater than risk of action. To me, that is very compelling.
Tapper: The president has discussed probably that he believed — and a belief is not the same thing as there was evidence. I mean, you could believe that Soleimani would have attacked the Eiffel Tower. That’s not necessarily based in evidence. I mean, he could have been. He posed a threat.
Esper: Well, there was evidence — there was evidence that part of the attack would be against the United States Embassy.
Tapper: In Baghdad?
Esper: In Baghdad.
Tapper: But what about the four embassies?
Esper: I’m not going to discuss intelligence. What the president said was, he believed it probably could have been. He didn’t cite intelligence.
Tapper: He said it was his belief. But, I mean, I guess the important matter here is, look, no one is disputing that Soleimani posed an existential threat to innocent people. But the president came out and said that there was that he believed there was a threat to four embassies. Were those four embassies alerted that there was a threat to them?
Esper: All the embassies were alerted. That’s why I deployed additional troops to the region. And let me say this much, Jake. I’m glad we’re having this discussion today, because I’d rather be here discussing this topic with you than going up to Dover Air Force Base and standing there while flag-draped coffins come home, and I have to explain to husbands and wives, sons and daughters why their service member died, when I had information that could have prevented that from happening.