Iranian general Qassem Soleimani haunted the US for more than two decades, a lethal adversary blamed for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in the Middle East.
Yet his stature as the second most powerful person in Iran made him almost untouchable in the eyes of Donald Trump’s predecessors.
That longstanding U.S. restraint ended in dramatic fashion Thursday with Trump’s order to launch a nighttime airstrike in Baghdad that killed Soleimani and drove tensions with Iran to the boiling point.
The president’s decision to target the powerful head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force came together swiftly, following the death of an American contractor in a Dec. 27 rocket attack by an Iranian-backed militia against a U.S. base in Iraq. Soon after the attack, Trump ordered a handful of his most senior aides to begin planning a strike on the Iranian general, according to three people familiar with the matter.
The Trump administration had recently asked France and other allies to warn Tehran against killing Americans, according to one of the people. For the president, a red line had been crossed.
Trump’s close circle of national security advisers was scattered across the country for the holidays -- Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was in Key West; National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien was in California; and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo was in Washington, after cancelling planned travel to Ukraine and other countries on Jan. 1.
Vice President Mike Pence was in Annapolis, Maryland, for his daughter Charlotte’s wedding on Saturday, then at Sanibel Island in Florida.
The team used secure communications lines to repeatedly discuss the strike. On Thursday, a plane from the White House fleet was sent to California to ferry O’Brien to Palm Beach to be with Trump as the attack unfolded.
A small number of lawyers on the National Security Council were involved. Secrecy was paramount, as aides worried that one of Trump’s most fraught and consequential decisions wasn’t leaked ahead of the strike.
While Soleimani’s death has been cheered by many of Trump’s supporters and congressional allies, Democrats say the president’s decision risks endangering American diplomats and troops in the Middle East and beyond. Within the Trump administration, there is even concern about Iranian reprisals inside U.S. borders.
As his administration planned the strike, Trump engaged in what looked outwardly like his normal vacation activities. He traveled to his golf course near Mar-a-Lago every day since Christmas. Though on Tuesday, the day protesters the U.S. says were instigated by Iran stormed the American embassy in Baghdad, he was there only about 50 minutes.
After leaving the course early, he assailed the media for what he said were reports he was playing golf during the embassy siege, writing on Twitter that he had meetings “in various locations, while closely monitoring the U.S. Embassy situation in Iraq.”
Senator Lindsey Graham played golf with Trump on Monday and was briefed on the Soleimani strike the following day, Graham said in an interview Friday on Fox News. It’s not clear if the administration notified any other lawmaker in advance.
David Popp, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, declined to say whether the Kentucky Republican got a heads-up from the White House. No congressional Democrats were forewarned.
Over the weekend or earlier this week, Trump ordered elements of the 82nd Airborne Division to the Middle East. About 750 paratroopers were notified Tuesday that they would be deployed. Security was enhanced at Mar-a-Lago, according to two people familiar with the matter.
No foreign governments were notified of the attack ahead of time.
U.S. officials say that Soleimani was coming to Baghdad to prepare for further attacks on American forces. The U.S. and several other countries track his movements, and he was believed to have arrived in the Iraqi capital from a third country in the region -- either Lebanon or Syria.
A U.S. official said the military wasn’t directly monitoring Soleimani over the past week but launched a strike when intelligence indicated he’d be at the Baghdad airport -- in military lexicon a “target of opportunity.”
The U.S. would have known as soon as he landed in Baghdad, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Soleimani was the primary target of the strike, just outside the Baghdad airport, which also killed the leader of Kataib Hezbollah militia that attacked the American military base.
The White House opted against notifying Congress ahead of the attack out of concern for security, a person familiar with the matter said. The Department of Homeland Security, which is partially responsible for deterring potential Iranian retaliation on U.S. soil, was only notified of the Soleimani strike after the fact. White House communications officials were excluded from the planning.
‘Plotting to kill’
The president offered a partial explanation of his decision on Twitter on Friday, writing that Soleimani “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans” and “was plotting to kill many more.”
He did not elaborate or provide any substantiation for the claim. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo later said in a CNN interview that Soleimani’s killing thwarted an “imminent attack,” again without providing further details.
Only on Friday, the day after the strike, did the State Department order American citizens to depart Iraq. Key members of Congress still hadn’t been briefed as of Friday morning, and the White House instead forwarded the Defense Department’s public statement to the offices of lawmakers who asked, according to three lawmakers.