Esper re­buts Trump’s claims

U.S. de­fense sec­re­tary says he has seen no hard ev­i­dence that four em­bassies had been un­der pos­si­ble threat.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Burns

WASH­ING­TON — De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark Esper ex­plic­itly said Sun­day that he had seen no hard ev­i­dence that four Amer­i­can em­bassies had been un­der pos­si­ble threat when Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump au­tho­rized the tar­get­ing of Iran’s top com­man­der, rais­ing ques­tions about the scale of the threat de­scribed by Trump last week.

As the ad­min­is­tra­tion strug­gled with its jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Esper and other of­fi­cials tried to re­fo­cus at­ten­tion on voices of dis­sent in Iran.

Esper said protests in Tehran show the Ira­nian peo­ple are hun­gry for a more ac­count­able gov­ern­ment af­ter lead­ers de­nied, then ad­mit­ted shoot­ing down a Ukrainian pas­sen­ger plane, killing all 176 peo­ple on board. The plane was downed shortly af­ter Iran launched strikes against US bases in Iraq in re­tal­i­a­tion for Soleimani’s killing.

“You can see the Ira­nian peo­ple are stand­ing up and as­sert­ing their rights, their as­pi­ra­tions for a bet­ter gov­ern­ment — a dif­fer­ent regime,” Esper said. He ap­peared on two Sun­day news shows while na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Robert O’Brien, was in­ter­viewed on three oth­ers — press­ing the White House’s cam­paign to bring “max­i­mum pres­sure” on Tehran to change its be­hav­ior.

O’Brien sug­gested the

United States sees this mo­ment as an op­por­tu­nity to fur­ther in­ten­sify pres­sure on Iran’s lead­ers, with whom the U.S. has been at odds for four decades. Iran’s lead­ers al­ready are un­der enor­mous strain from eco­nomic sanc­tions that have vir­tu­ally stran­gled Iran’s main source of in­come — oil ex­ports.

Trump is un­der great pres­sure as he faces an ex­pected im­peach­ment trial in the Se­nate. Many in Congress also are up­set over his han­dling of Iran, com­plain­ing that the ad­min­is­tra­tion did not con­sult them in ad­vance of the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most pow­er­ful gen­eral, nor ad­e­quately brief mem­bers after­ward.

Trump com­pli­cated the de­bate by as­sert­ing on Fox News that he had to strike quickly be­cause in­tel­li­gence showed Iran could have at­tacked four Amer­i­can em­bassies.

Esper and O’Brien said they agreed that Iran might have hit more than just the U.S. Em­bassy in the Iraqi cap­i­tal. But Esper, when asked whether there was a spe­cific piece of ev­i­dence, replied: “I didn’t see one with re­gard to four em­bassies.” And in re­sponse to a ques­tion about whether Trump was “em­bel­lish­ing” the threat, Esper said, “I don’t be­lieve so.”

Af­ter the U.S. killed Soleimani in Bagh­dad, it ap­peared the back­lash in Iran and else­where had helped Tehran by shift­ing the fo­cus away from its in­ter­nal prob­lems. The strike also seemed to di­vert at­ten­tion away from do­mes­tic un­rest in Iraq over gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion, and it in­ten­si­fied ef­forts by Iraqi politi­cians to ex­pel Amer­i­can and other for­eign forces.

But the shoot­ing down of the Ukrainian plane on the night of the strike on two bases in Iraq opened a new av­enue of pres­sure for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“I think the regime is hav­ing a very bad week,” O’Brien said. “This was a regime that’s reel­ing from max­i­mum pres­sure, they’re reel­ing from their in­com­pe­tence in this sit­u­a­tion and the peo­ple of Iran are just fed up with it.”

Esper said Iran de­serves credit for tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for the down­ing.

“My hunch is it was an ac­ci­dent,” he said, adding that al­though Ira­nian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials ini­tially blamed Amer­i­can pro­pa­ganda, they ul­ti­mately “did the right thing by ad­mit­ting it.”

Ira­ni­ans have ex­pressed anger over the down­ing of the Ukrainian flight and the mis­lead­ing ex­pla­na­tions from se­nior of­fi­cials in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math.

Re­view­ing the dra­matic se­quence of events that pre­ceded the down­ing of the Ukrainian jet­liner Wed­nes­day, Esper jus­ti­fied the U.S. killing of Soleimani as an act of self-de­fense, and he said the U.S. fore­sees no more Ira­nian mil­i­tary at­tacks in re­tal­i­a­tion for that. Even so, the leader of the Le­banese mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah, which is closely aligned with Iran, said Sun­day that Iran’s mis­sile at­tacks on two bases in Iraq hous­ing U.S. forces last week were only the start of the re­tal­i­a­tion.

Esper also was pressed to com­ment on Trump’s state­ment in a Fox News in­ter­view that the pres­i­dent be­lieved Soleimani had been plot­ting to at­tack four U.S. em­bassies. Esper said he shared the be­lief that Soleimani was plan­ning at­tacks on mul­ti­ple U.S. fa­cil­i­ties, but Esper did not say th­ese in­cluded four em­bassies.

While seek­ing to de­fend Trump’s re­marks as rep­re­sent­ing the pres­i­dent’s per­sonal be­lief, not an as­ser­tion of a spe­cific piece of hard in­tel­li­gence that four em­bassies had been tar­geted, Esper in­di­cated there was no such piece of ev­i­dence.

“I didn’t see one with re­gard to four em­bassies,” Esper said. “What I’m say­ing is I share the pres­i­dent’s view that prob­a­bly — my ex­pec­ta­tion was they were go­ing to go af­ter our em­bassies. The em­bassies are the most prom­i­nent dis­play of Amer­i­can pres­ence in a coun­try.”

Esper ap­peared on CBS’ “Face the Na­tion” and CNN’s “State of the Union.” O’Brien ap­peared on ABC’s “This Week,” “Fox News Sun­day” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

EVAN VUCCI/AP

De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark Esper said he’s seen no hard ev­i­dence that four U.S. em­bassies were un­der threat of at­tack.

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