House Foreign Affairs Chairman calls Trump's legal theory for Soleimani strike "absurd"

By Grace Segers

/ CBS News

Pompeo: Soleimani killing part of global strategy

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says an official report from the White House regarding the strike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani contradicts President Trump's justification for giving the order.

In a statement with the White House report attached, Congressman Eliot Engel said that the new information undermines the president's "false assertion that he attacked Iran to prevent an imminent attack against United States personnel and embassies."

"The administration's explanation in this report makes no mention of any imminent threat and shows that the justification the president offered to the American people was false, plain and simple," Engel said. Mr. Trump claimed that the strike against Soleimani, which he ordered at the end of last year, was necessary because Soleimani presented an imminent threat to American embassies.

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The White House report, however, says that the strike was "in response to an escalating series of attacks in preceding months by Iran and Iran-backed militias on United States forces and interests in the Middle East region.

"The purposes of this action were to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests, to degrade Iran's and Qods force-backed militias' abilities to conduct attacks, and to end Iran's strategic escalation of attacks on, and threats to United States interests," the report says.

Iran directed strikes on two American bases in Iraq in retaliation for Soleimani's death in January, injuring dozens of American military personnel. Conflict between the U.S. and Iran has since deescalated.

The report also stated that Mr. Trump was authorized to carry out the strike on Soleimani under the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), an argument Engel dismissed.

"This legal theory is absurd. The 2002 authorization was passed to deal with Saddam Hussein," he wrote. "This law had nothing to do with Iran or Iranian government officials in Iraq. To suggest that 18 years later this authorization could justify killing an Iranian official stretches the law far beyond anything Congress ever intended."

The House voted last month to repeal the 2002 AUMF.

"This spurious, after-the-fact explanation won't do. We need answers and testimony, so I look forward to Secretary Pompeo testifying before the committee at an open February 28 hearing on Iran and Iraq policy, including the Soleimani strike and war powers," Engel continued, referring to a proposed hearing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the end of the month.

The House and Senate have recently taken steps to limit Mr. Trump's ability to engage in hostilities with Iran. The Senate approved a war powers resolution Thursday that directs the removal of U.S. Armed Forces from engagement in hostilities against Iran within 30 days unless it has been approved by Congress. The measure is expected to be approved by the House, which passed a similar resolution last month, but is likely to be vetoed by the president.

In January, the House approved a measure to restrict the president's authority to strike Iran without congressional approval. The resolution passed by a vote of 224 to 194 and now goes to the Senate. Eight Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the resolution, while three Republicans voted in favor.

The House action is what's known as a "concurrent resolution," meaning it requires only the approval of both chambers of Congress and does not go to the president for his signature. Kaine's measure is a "joint resolution," meaning that it requires Mr. Trump's signature, but also that it would be binding.

First published on February 14, 2020 / 12:01 PM

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Grace Segers is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.