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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "Trump, Donald J" (Page 75)

Trump’s Impeachment Team Takes Shape as Trial Looms

Westlake Legal Group 12dc-strategy1-facebookJumbo-v2 Trump’s Impeachment Team Takes Shape as Trial Looms United States Politics and Government Trump, Donald J Trump-Ukraine Whistle-Blower Complaint and Impeachment Inquiry Sekulow, Jay Alan impeachment Cipollone, Pat A

For weeks, President Trump’s advisers have been preparing for the eventuality of an impeachment trial in the Senate, a process that could begin as soon as Wednesday.

Some aspects of how Mr. Trump’s team will approach the trial have yet to be determined, including whether it will seek witnesses and how much time it will ask for to argue its case. But the basic configuration of the team defending the television-savvy president in a made-for-TV congressional event has been established.

The two constants will be Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Jay Sekulow, who has been Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer since 2017. Both are expected to have speaking roles during the trial.

“The truth is, we’ve been prepared to proceed as soon as the articles were adopted,” Mr. Sekulow said on Sunday. “We’ve been prepared, we are prepared and we will be prepared for any contingencies.”

This will be the first outing by Mr. Trump’s team during the impeachment process after the White House chose not to mount a traditional defense during the House proceedings.

For Mr. Cipollone, the trial will be a high-profile appearance for the typically low-profile lawyer, who has stayed well below the radar during more than a year in the job. Mr. Sekulow, who hosts a daily radio show and is a frequent television commentator, is more accustomed to being in the public eye.

There will be other lawyers involved, primarily Mr. Cipollone’s two top deputies, Patrick F. Philbin and Michael M. Purpura, two people familiar with the plans said. Neither was authorized to speak publicly about the formation of the president’s defense.

Others may have discreet roles with the team, including the famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whose appearances on television have impressed Mr. Trump, and other members of the White House counsel’s staff.

It remains undetermined whether three of Mr. Trump’s closest allies among House Republicans — Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio, Doug Collins of Georgia and John Ratcliffe of Texas — will play a role. They had been expected to, at Mr. Trump’s urging, until the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, advised against it, according to people close to the president.

Some close to Mr. Trump say that having Mr. Ratcliffe involved would be particularly helpful. The congressman helped lead the Republican defense in the House and has told people he is familiar with all the evidence that was presented.

Last week, Mr. Trump’s lawyers met at the White House with Stephen R. Castor, who served as the Republican counsel in the House impeachment hearings, according to people briefed on the discussions.

Mr. Castor was also at the White House before the final impeachment hearings, along with Republican members of the House, the people briefed on the discussions said. He did not meet privately with the president, but Mr. Trump wanted to thank him for his role in the hearings, they said.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers may also decide to expand the team, depending on how the trial unfolds.

The shaping of Mr. Trump’s defense team is playing out against a backdrop of contradicting signals from the president. On Sunday, Mr. Trump suggested that instead of holding a trial, the Senate should dismiss the House’s articles of impeachment that charge him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

“Many believe that by the Senate giving credence to a trial based on the no evidence, no crime, read the transcripts, ‘no pressure’ Impeachment Hoax, rather than an outright dismissal, it gives the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility that it otherwise does not have,” the president wrote on Twitter. “I agree!”

Hours earlier he seemed to endorse a trial, tweeting that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Adam B. Schiff, the California Democrat and Intelligence Committee chairman who led the impeachment inquiry, should be called as witnesses.

Indeed, for Mr. Trump, who is eager to be cleared and is angered by the fact that the impeachment vote ever happened, there is still a desire to see witnesses called, according to people close to him.

But he has also told advisers that he would follow Mr. McConnell’s advice on the best way to proceed. Mr. McConnell has told colleagues that witnesses can only complicate matters, and that they open up an avenue of uncertainty.

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Esper Says He Saw No Evidence Iran Targeted 4 Embassies, as Story Shifts Again

Westlake Legal Group 12dc-iranintel-facebookJumbo Esper Says He Saw No Evidence Iran Targeted 4 Embassies, as Story Shifts Again United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J Suleimani, Qassim O'Brien, Robert C (1952- ) Iran Esper, Mark T Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates

WASHINGTON — They had to kill him because he was planning an “imminent” attack. But how imminent they could not say. Where they could not say. When they could not say. And really, it was more about what he had already done. Or actually it was to stop him from hitting an American embassy. Or four embassies. Or not.

For 10 days, President Trump and his team have struggled to describe the reasoning behind the decision to launch a drone strike against Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security forces, propelling the two nations to the brink of war. Officials agree they had intelligence indicating danger, but the public explanations have shifted by the day and sometimes by the hour.

On Sunday came the latest twist. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he was never shown any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as Mr. Trump had claimed just two days earlier.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “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.”

The sharp disparity between the president and his defense secretary only added to the public debate over the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general and whether there was sufficient justification for an operation that escalated tensions with Iran, aggravated relations with European allies and prompted Iraq to threaten to expel United States forces. General Suleimani was deemed responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers in the Iraq war more than a decade ago, but it was not clear whether he had specific plans for a mass-casualty attack in the near future.

While agreeing that General Suleimani was generally a threat, Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, have said the administration has not provided evidence even in classified briefings to back up the claim of an “imminent” attack, nor has it mentioned that four embassies were targeted. Even some Pentagon officials have said privately that they were unaware of any intelligence suggesting that a large-scale attack was in the offing.

But senior government officials with the best access to intelligence have insisted there was ample cause for concern even if it has not been communicated clearly to the public. Gina Haspel, the director of the C.I.A., and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — who were both appointed by Mr. Trump but are career officials without a political history — have said privately and forcefully that the intelligence was compelling and that they were convinced a major attack was coming.

The challenge for the Trump administration is persuading the public, which has been skeptical about intelligence used to justify military action since President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 based on what turned out to be inaccurate intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Trump himself has made clear in other circumstances that he does not trust the intelligence agencies that he is now citing to justify his decision to eliminate General Suleimani. Moreover, given his long history of falsehoods and distortions, Mr. Trump has his own credibility issues that further cloud the picture. All of which means the administration’s failure to provide a consistent explanation has sown doubts and exposed it to criticism.

“If indeed the strike was taken to disrupt an imminent threat to U.S. persons — and that picture seems to be getting murkier by the minute — the case should be made to Congress and to the public, consistent with national security,” said Lisa Monaco, a former senior F.B.I. official and homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama. “Failure to do so hurts our credibility and deterrence going forward.”

Intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive data collection, have said there was no single definitive piece of information about a coming attack. Instead, C.I.A. officers described a “mosaic effect,” multiple scraps of information that came together indicating that General Suleimani was organizing proxy forces around the region, including in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, to attack American embassies and bases.

Several officials said they did not have enough concrete information to describe such a threat as “imminent,” despite the administration’s assertion, but they did see a worrying pattern. A State Department official has privately said it was a mistake for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to use the word “imminent” because it suggested a level of specificity that was not borne out by the intelligence.

“I have not seen the intelligence, just to be clear, but it is sometimes possible for the reporting of planned attacks to be very compelling even without specificity of time, target or method,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former acting C.I.A. director. “In a sense, that is the story of 9/11. Our reporting gave us high confidence that a big attack was coming — and we so warned — but we were unable to nail down key details.”

Mr. McLaughlin said that the administration may well have had intelligence adequate to compel action, but that it was a separate question whether killing General Suleimani was the most effective response, as opposed to hardening targets or choosing a less provocative option.

Claims about an imminent attack that could take “hundreds of American lives,” as Mr. Pompeo put it right after the drone strike, have also generated doubts because no attack in the Middle East over the past two decades, even at the height of the Iraq war, has ever resulted in so many American casualties at once in part because embassies and bases have become so fortified.

The contrast in descriptions of what the administration knew and what it did not came in quick succession on a single Fox News show last week.

On Thursday night, Mr. Pompeo, while sticking by his description of an “imminent” attack, acknowledged that the information was not concrete. “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” he told the host, Laura Ingraham.

The next day, in a separate interview, Mr. Trump told Ms. Ingraham that in fact he did know where. “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” he said.

That left administration officials like Mr. Esper in an awkward position when they hit the talk show circuit on Sunday. While the defense secretary revealed on CBS that he had not seen intelligence indicating four embassies were targeted, he sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said, seeming to make a distinction between belief and specific intelligence. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.

“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”

“But,” he added, “we had very strong intelligence.”

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics after the strike, said on CNN that he worried about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”

“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck a similar tone, telling ABC’s “This Week” that “I don’t think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States” about the reasons for killing General Suleimani.

On “Face the Nation,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused the president and his top aides of “fudging” the intelligence.

“Frankly, I think what they are doing is overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows,” Mr. Schiff said. Officials briefing the so-called Gang of Eight top congressional leaders never said that four embassies were targeted, he added. “In the view of the briefers, there was plotting, there was an effort to escalate being planned, but they didn’t have specificity.”

Nicholas Fandos, Alan Rappeport and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.

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#MeToo Cases’ New Legal Battleground: Defamation Lawsuits

Westlake Legal Group 00defamation-metoo-judd-facebookJumbo #MeToo Cases’ New Legal Battleground: Defamation Lawsuits Zervos, Summer Weinstein, Harvey Trump, Donald J Suits and Litigation (Civil) Statutes of Limitations sexual harassment Sex Crimes New York State Moore, Roy S Miltenberg, Andrew T Libel and Slander Heard, Amber Giuffre, Virginia Roberts Freedom of Speech and Expression Elliott, Stephen Donegan, Moira Dershowitz, Alan M Depp, Johnny Cosby, Bill Corfman, Leigh #MeToo Movement

Ashley Judd was one of the first women to attach her name to accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein, but like many of the claims that followed, her account of intimidating sexual advances was too old to bring Mr. Weinstein to court over.

Then a legal window opened to her. After reading about a director’s claim that Mr. Weinstein’s studio, Miramax, had described Ms. Judd as a “nightmare to work with,” she sued the producer for defamation in 2018.

Mr. Weinstein’s rape trial in Manhattan, which began with jury selection last week, is a spectacle not only because he is the avatar of the #MeToo era, but also because it is one of the few sexual assault cases to surface with allegations recent enough to result in criminal charges.

So, unable to pursue justice directly, women and men on both sides of #MeToo are embracing the centuries-old tool of defamation lawsuits, opening an alternative legal battleground for accusations of sexual misconduct.

While the facts of the cases vary, the plaintiffs are generally using defamation law not just for its usual purpose — to dissuade damaging speech about them — but also as a tool to enlist the courts to endorse their version of disputed events.

This year, key verdicts are expected in defamation cases involving President Trump, the Senate candidate Roy Moore and the actor Johnny Depp, and lawyers are watching the proceedings closely.

In some cases, women are basing their suits on recent statements in which the men they accused called them liars; or in Ms. Judd’s case, on a disparaging statement she said she was not aware of until the director, Peter Jackson, revealed it in a 2017 interview. Men like Mr. Depp are using defamation suits to fend off allegations from women, in his case, his ex-wife Amber Heard, who accused him of domestic abuse.

Courts have only begun to grapple with this #MeToo-inspired wave of defamation lawsuits, which are, in some cases, being brought because the statutes of limitations on sexual misconduct can be as short as one year, depending on the state and severity of the accusation. Those statutes are a bedrock legal concept designed to discourage people from being sued or imprisoned based on witness memories that may have eroded over the years.

The cases raise a swirl of issues, including the appropriate limits on freedom of speech; the power of social media, where an accusation can spread on platforms that vary in reliability and authority; and whether the statutes of limitations should be extended, as some states have already done.

Advocates on both sides are anxious. Lawyers for people accused of misconduct fear that a string of defamation victories for women will prevent men who believe they have been wrongly accused from freely defending themselves. At the same time, backers of the #MeToo movement fear that a spate of defamation cases against women will push victims back into the shadows.

“The next year is going to be very interesting when it comes to the law of defamation,” said Sigrid McCawley, a lawyer representing Virginia Giuffre, who said she was a victim of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking operation and accused Mr. Epstein’s ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell and the lawyer Alan Dershowitz of being part of it. After they issued statements saying she was lying, she sued them for defamation. Mr. Dershowitz has countersued Ms. Giuffre for defamation; Ms. Maxwell settled in 2017.

“We’re going to see a wave of opinions that will shape that landscape quite a bit,” Ms. McCawley said.

Several cases involve big names in politics and entertainment. Summer Zervos, a former “Apprentice” contestant, filed a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Trump for his comments during his presidential campaign that her accusations of unwanted kissing and groping were fabricated. The president has argued that he cannot be sued in state court while in office, an issue that is likely headed for New York’s highest court. Its decision will be closely watched by E. Jean Carroll, who filed a similar claim against Mr. Trump after he said that she had lied about his raping her to increase sales of her new book.

Leigh Corfman, who accused Mr. Moore of touching her sexually when she was 14, sued him for defamation after he called her story false, malicious and “politically motivated.” That trial is expected to start this year in Alabama. Mr. Moore lost his Senate race in 2017 after accusations surfaced from Ms. Corfman and other women.

And last year, at least eight women reached settlements with Bill Cosby’s insurance company to end their defamation lawsuits. They filed them after his representatives accused them of lying when they said Mr. Cosby had sexually assaulted them decades ago.

At the same time, defamation suits are a go-to strategy for accused men trying to preserve their reputations. Mr. Depp’s lawsuit is expected to go to trial this summer in Virginia unless the judge dismisses it. And a judge in Brooklyn is considering whether to allow or throw out a lawsuit filed by the writer Stephen Elliott against Moira Donegan, the creator of a widely circulated list of men accused of sexual misconduct that included him.

Mr. Elliott, 48, who denied having assaulted anyone, said in an interview that after his essay about the accusation was rebuffed by mainstream news outlets and with his career in shambles, he saw a defamation lawsuit as his only option.

“What would you do if you had been falsely accused of rape?” he said.

There are lower-profile cases moving through the courts, too. Thirty-three out of 193 cases that the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund supports involve defending workers who came forward about sexual harassment and were then sued for defamation, said Sharyn Tejani, the fund’s director.

For many plaintiffs, a benefit of suing for defamation is the opportunity to air the facts of what happened years ago, even if they are unable to sue for harassment or assault.

“In order to prove you’re a truth teller, you have to prove it happened,” said Joseph Cammarata, who represented seven Cosby accusers. “This is a direct way to get at the person who assaulted you.”

In Ms. Judd’s case, it could lead to a hearing over her account of visiting Mr. Weinstein’s room at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel one morning in late 1996 or early 1997, expecting a professional breakfast. She said that Mr. Weinstein, wearing a bathrobe, had requested to massage her or for her to watch him shower, and that she had refused.

Ms. Judd has argued that Miramax called her a “nightmare to work with” in retaliation for the hotel encounter. Miramax’s alleged conversation with Mr. Jackson occurred more than 20 years ago. The statute of limitations for a defamation claim in California is just one year, but the judge let the case go forward, saying that it was plausible that Ms. Judd would only learn about the conversation through Mr. Jackson’s 2017 interview. (The judge threw out Ms. Judd’s sexual harassment claim, saying it did not fall within the scope of California law.)

Mr. Weinstein has not directly disputed the allegation that Miramax said Ms. Judd was a “nightmare to work with” but has argued that his attempts to land her major acting roles later on showed that he was not trying to hinder her career. He has denied having any nonconsensual sexual encounters, including with the two women at the center of his rape trial in Manhattan. On Monday, prosecutors in Los Angeles announced that he had been charged with rape and sexual battery in connection with encounters with two women there.

Compared with some other countries, in the United States a defamation case is relatively difficult to win, because of a standard set by the Supreme Court to protect freedom of the press. If the plaintiff is a public figure, as many are, he or she must prove the statement was both false and made with “reckless disregard” for whether it was true.

In countries without the same high bar, including China, Australia and France, men have won high-profile defamation cases against women or news outlets that published their stories.

In the United States, a court must also find that the speech in question is based in fact and not purely opinion. Part of Mr. Trump’s argument against Ms. Zervos is that his statements were “fiery rhetoric, hyperbole and opinion” that are protected by the Constitution. Mr. Moore has made a similar argument. In denying Mr. Trump’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, a judge wrote that he knew exactly what transpired between him and Ms. Zervos, so his calling her a liar was akin to an assertion of fact.

The public airing of #MeToo stories over the past two years has made these suits noticeable, but the strategy is not entirely new. In 1994, Paula Jones sued President Bill Clinton alleging that he had exposed himself to her when he was governor of Arkansas. One portion of the lawsuit accused him and his associates of defaming Ms. Jones by characterizing her as a liar.

A judge dismissed the claim, writing that the comments were “mere denials of the allegations and the questioning of plaintiff’s motives.” Mr. Clinton settled the rest of the suit for $850,000, without admitting wrongdoing; his lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky during the Jones lawsuit led to his impeachment.

But a more recent ruling, by New York’s highest court, has given hope to lawyers representing women. The court in 2014 revived a lawsuit filed by two men against Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse University basketball coach, who had accused the two men of lying when they said one of Mr. Boeheim’s assistants, Bernie Fine, had abused them as children. The defamation lawsuit was settled in 2015. (Mr. Fine lost his job, but after an investigation, he was not charged with a crime.)

The decision made the New York court system an attractive place to file this kind of lawsuit, said Mariann Wang, who represented the plaintiffs in that case, and Ms. Zervos until recently.

Since the #MeToo movement took off, a number of states have lengthened the statutes of limitations for sexual assault claims, meaning future victims may have less need to rely on defamation lawsuits.

But those suits remain the only legal option for people like Therese Serignese, who said Mr. Cosby gave her pills backstage at a show in Las Vegas in 1976, when she was 19. The next memory she had was waking up to realize that she was being sexually violated.

She joined a lawsuit in 2015 asserting that representatives for Mr. Cosby had defamed her and other women by calling stories like theirs “fantastical” and “past the point of absurdity.” Mr. Cosby’s insurance company settled the lawsuit in April, about a year after he was convicted of sexual assault.

“My point was to make him accountable,” Ms. Serignese, 62, said. “Put him out there and make him work to prove that I’m not telling the truth. Because I knew I was telling the truth.”

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Labor Dept. Rule to Curb Lawsuits by Franchise Workers

Westlake Legal Group defaultPromoCrop Labor Dept. Rule to Curb Lawsuits by Franchise Workers Trump, Donald J Regulation and Deregulation of Industry McDonald's Corporation Labor Department (US) Labor and Jobs Franchises Fast Food Industry Corporations

Workers could have more difficulty suing large companies for wrongdoing by contractors or franchisees under a rule announced on Sunday by the Labor Department.

Under the rule, which will take effect in March, employees of a fast-food franchise like a McDonald’s restaurant, for example, may struggle to win a legal claim against the parent company if a franchisee violates minimum-wage and overtime laws.

“This final rule furthers President Trump’s successful, governmentwide effort to address regulations that hinder the American economy and to promote economic growth,” Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia said in a statement.

The rule, which the department proposed last April, fleshes out its position on a concept known as joint employment. It effectively replaces a more labor-friendly Obama-era approach that the Trump administration withdrew in 2017, one of several departures from the previous administration in the area of employment and labor law.

After the rule takes effect, it could limit the ability of millions of workers to recover wages they are owed.

The contractors and franchisees that directly employ workers often have limited resources to pay legal penalties and settlements, making the large upstream companies with whom these employers have a relationship a more practical target.

“This resolution provides much-needed clarity for the 733,000 franchise establishments across America,” said Robert Cresanti, the president and chief executive of the International Franchise Association, an industry group.

Advocates for worker have criticized the rule, arguing that it provides a road map of sorts for employers seeking to avoid liability for harmful practices.

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Esper Says He Didn’t See Specific Evidence Iran Planned to Attack 4 Embassies

Westlake Legal Group 12dc-iranintel-facebookJumbo Esper Says He Didn’t See Specific Evidence Iran Planned to Attack 4 Embassies United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J Suleimani, Qassim O'Brien, Robert C (1952- ) Iran Esper, Mark T Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on Sunday that he never saw any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as President Trump had claimed last week as a justification for the strike on an Iranian general that sent the United States and Iran to the brink of war.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “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.”

The muddled message on Sunday by Mr. Esper and other administration officials only added to the public debate over the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general, Qassim Suleimani, and whether there was appropriate justification for the killing. The administration has offered shifting rationales for the strike, first indicating that it was a response to an “imminent” threat and then backing away from that idea, before sporadically reclaiming it.

As critics, including some Republicans, in Congress expressed dismay, administration officials have in recent days often avoided offering specifics about what prompted the airstrike. But Mr. Trump said on Friday that part of the reason was that Iran was planning attacks on four American embassies.

Mr. Esper sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim in another interview on Sunday, on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”

But appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, also played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.

“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”

“But we had very strong intelligence,” he added.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics after the strike, said on CNN on Sunday that he was “worried” about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”

“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.

Asked specifically whether administration officials had briefed Congress on Iranian threats to four American embassies, as they have subsequently claimed, Mr. Lee said he did not believe so.

“I didn’t hear anything about that,” he said. “Several of my colleagues have said the same. So, that was news to me, and it is certainly not something that I recall being raised in the classified briefing.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck a similar tone, telling ABC’s “This Week” that “I don’t think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States” about the reasons for killing General Suleimani.

On “Face the Nation,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused the president and his top national security aides of “fudging” the intelligence around the Iranian threat.

“Frankly, I think what they are doing is overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows,” Mr. Schiff said.

He also disputed that Congress had been told about specific threats to American embassies, or other targets.

“There was no discussion in the Gang of Eight briefings that these are four embassies that were being targeted and we have exquisite intelligence that shows these are the specific targets,” he said, referring to the group of congressional leaders and Republican and Democratic leaders of the intelligence committees. “I don’t recall frankly there being a specific discussion about bombing the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.”

He added, “In the view of the briefers, there was plotting, there was an effort to escalate being planned, but they didn’t have specificity.”

The strike on General Suleimani, who was responsible for the killing and maiming of hundreds of American troops at the height of the Iraq war, prompted retaliatory strikes last week. The Iranian military launched 16 ballistic missiles at bases in Iraq where Americans are stationed, bringing both countries to the brink of war.

When the Iranian retaliatory strikes did not kill or injure anyone, both sides pulled back. But hours after the strikes, a Ukrainian airliner was shot down over Tehran, Iran’s capital, by Iranian air defenses, killing all 176 aboard. Iranian officials said the downing of the plane was “unintentional” and the result of heightened tensions in the region.

The Trump administration has also tried to keep up pressure on Tehran. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” that new sanctions the administration had announced last week against Iran would target industries beyond its oil sector to pressure its government.

“This is all really about cutting off money, oil sales, other revenue that would be funding their terrorist activities and their nuclear weapons development,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “We don’t want to target the people of Iran.”

Despite the new measures, questions remain about the Trump administration’s ability to further ramp up sanctions on Iran after having already used such tools so aggressively.

Meanwhile, China has continued to buy Iran’s oil. The United States has been cautious about confronting China too forcefully amid trade negotiations, but Mr. Mnuchin said he had been pressuring the Chinese to cut off their purchases of Iranian oil.

“China is subject to sanctions just like everybody else,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “We will continue to pursue sanction activities against China and anybody else around the world that continues to do business with them.”

Nicholas Fandos and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.

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Esper Says He ‘Didn’t See’ Specific Evidence Iranians Planned to Attack 4 Embassies

Westlake Legal Group 12dc-iranintel-facebookJumbo Esper Says He ‘Didn’t See’ Specific Evidence Iranians Planned to Attack 4 Embassies United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J Suleimani, Qassim O'Brien, Robert C (1952- ) Iran Esper, Mark T Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on Sunday that he never saw any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as President Trump had claimed last week as a justification for the strike on an Iranian general that sent the United States and Iran to the brink of war.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “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.”

The muddled message on Sunday by Mr. Esper and other administration officials only added to the public debate regarding the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and whether there was appropriate justification for the killing. The administration has offered shifting justifications for the strike.

In recent days administration officials have avoided offering specifics about what, exactly, prompted the airstrike, but on Friday Mr. Trump said that part of the reason was that Iran was planning attacks on four American embassies.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Mr. Esper had sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim.

“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”

But appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, had also played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.

“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”

“But we had very strong intelligence,” he added.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics in the aftermath of the strike, said on CNN on Sunday that he was “worried” about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”

“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.

Asked specifically whether administration officials had briefed Congress on Iranian threats to four American embassies, as they have subsequently claimed, Mr. Lee said he did not believe so.

“I didn’t hear anything about that,” he said. “Several of my colleagues have said the same. So, that was news to me, and it is certainly not something that I recall being raised in the classified briefing.”

Nicholas Fandos and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.

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Esper Says He ‘Didn’t See’ Specific Evidence Iranians Planned to Attack 4 Embassies

Westlake Legal Group 12dc-iranintel-facebookJumbo Esper Says He ‘Didn’t See’ Specific Evidence Iranians Planned to Attack 4 Embassies United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J Suleimani, Qassim O'Brien, Robert C (1952- ) Iran Esper, Mark T Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on Sunday that he never saw any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as President Trump had claimed last week as a justification for the strike on an Iranian general that sent the United States and Iran to the brink of war.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “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.”

The muddled message on Sunday by Mr. Esper and other administration officials only added to the public debate regarding the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and whether there was appropriate justification for the killing. The administration has offered shifting justifications for the strike.

In recent days administration officials have avoided offering specifics about what, exactly, prompted the airstrike, but on Friday Mr. Trump said that part of the reason was that Iran was planning attacks on four American embassies.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Mr. Esper had sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim.

“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”

But appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, had also played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.

“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”

“But we had very strong intelligence,” he added.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics in the aftermath of the strike, said on CNN on Sunday that he was “worried” about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”

“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.

Asked specifically whether administration officials had briefed Congress on Iranian threats to four American embassies, as they have subsequently claimed, Mr. Lee said he did not believe so.

“I didn’t hear anything about that,” he said. “Several of my colleagues have said the same. So, that was news to me, and it is certainly not something that I recall being raised in the classified briefing.”

Nicholas Fandos and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.

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Seven Days in January: How Trump Pushed U.S. and Iran to the Brink of War

WASHINGTON — The plane was late and the kill team was worried. International listings showed that Cham Wings Airlines Flight 6Q501, scheduled to take off from Damascus at 7:30 p.m. for Baghdad, had departed, but in fact, an informant at the airport reported, it was still on the ground and the targeted passenger had not yet shown up.

The hours ticked by and some involved in the operation wondered if it should be called off. Then, just before the plane door closed, a convoy of cars pulled up on the tarmac carrying Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s security mastermind, who climbed on board along with two escorts. Flight 6Q501 lifted off, three hours late, bound for the Iraqi capital.

The plane landed at Baghdad International Airport just after midnight, at 12:36 a.m., and the first to disembark were General Suleimani and his entourage. Waiting at the bottom of the gangway was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi official in charge of militias and close to Iran. Two cars carrying the group headed into the night — shadowed by American MQ-9 Reaper drones. At 12:47, the first of several missiles smashed into the vehicles, engulfing them in flames and leaving 10 charred bodies inside.

The operation that took out General Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, propelled the United States to the precipice of war with Iran and plunged the world into seven days of roiling uncertainty. The story of those seven days, and the secret planning in the months preceding them, ranks as the most perilous chapter so far in President Trump’s three years in office after his decision to launch an audacious strike on Iran, and his attempt through allies and a back channel to keep the ensuing crisis from mushrooming out of control.

The president’s decision to ratchet up decades of simmering conflict with Iran set off an extraordinary worldwide drama, much of which played out behind the scenes. In capitals from Europe to the Middle East, leaders and diplomats sought to head off a full-fledged new war while at the White House and Pentagon, the president and his advisers ordered more troops to the region.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler was so alarmed he dispatched his brother to Washington for a clandestine meeting with Mr. Trump. European leaders, incensed at being kept in the dark, scrambled to keep Iran from escalating. If it did, Americans developed plans to strike a command-and-control ship and conduct a cyberattack to partly disable Iran’s oil and gas sector.

ImageWestlake Legal Group 11dc-sevendays6-articleLarge Seven Days in January: How Trump Pushed U.S. and Iran to the Brink of War United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Suleimani, Qassim Pompeo, Mike Military Bases and Installations Iran Esper, Mark T Drones (Pilotless Planes) Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)

The aftermath of the airstrike on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani’s car on Jan. 3 at the Baghdad airport. Altogether, 10 people were killed.Credit…Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office, via Associated Press

But the United States also sent secret messages through Swiss intermediaries urging Iran not to respond so forcefully that Mr. Trump would feel compelled to go even further. After it did respond, firing 16 missiles at bases housing American troops without hurting anyone as a relatively harmless show of force, a message came back through the Swiss saying that would be the end of its reprisal for now. The message, forwarded to Washington within five minutes after it was received, persuaded the president to stand down.

When the week ended without the war many feared, Mr. Trump boasted that he had taken out an American enemy. But the struggle between two nations is not really over. Iran may find other ways to take revenge. Iraqi leaders may expel American forces, accomplishing in death what General Suleimani tried and failed to do in life. And in the confusion, a Ukrainian civilian passenger jet was destroyed by an Iranian missile, killing 176 people.

The episode briefly gave Mr. Trump’s allies something to cheer, distracting from the coming Senate impeachment trial, but now he faces questions even among Republicans about the shifting justifications for the strike that he and his national security team have offered. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially cited the need to forestall an “imminent” attack and the president has amplified that to say four American embassies were targeted.

But administration officials said they did not actually know when or where such an attack might occur and one State Department official said it was “a mistake” to use the word “imminent.” And some senior military commanders were stunned that Mr. Trump picked what they considered a radical option with unforeseen consequences.

This account, based on interviews with dozens of Trump administration officials, military officers, diplomats, intelligence analysts and others in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, offers new details about what may be the most consequential seven days of the Trump presidency.

The confrontation may have actually begun by accident. For years, Iran has sponsored proxy forces in Iraq, competing for influence with American troops who first arrived in the invasion of 2003. Starting last fall, Iranian-backed militias launched rockets at Iraqi bases that house American troops, shattering nerves more than doing much damage.

So when rockets smashed into the K1 military base near Kirkuk on Dec. 27, killing an American civilian contractor, Nawres Waleed Hamid, and injuring several others, the only surprise was the casualties. Kataib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia group held responsible, had fired at least five other rocket attacks on bases with Americans in the previous month without deadly results.

American intelligence officials monitoring communications between Kataib Hezbollah and General Suleimani’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps learned that the Iranians wanted to keep the pressure on the Americans but had not intended to escalate the low-level conflict. The rockets landed in a place and at a time when American and Iraqi personnel normally were not there and it was only by unlucky chance that Mr. Hamid was killed, American officials said.

But that did not matter to Mr. Trump and his team. An American was dead and the president who had called off a retaliatory strike with 10 minutes to go in June and otherwise refrained from military action in response to Iranian provocations now faced a choice.

Advisers told him Iran had probably misinterpreted his previous reluctance to use force as a sign of weakness. To reestablish deterrence, he should authorize a tough response. On holiday at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, the president agreed to strikes on five sites in Iraq and Syria two days later, killing at least 25 members of Kataib Hezbollah and injuring at least 50 more.

Two days later, on Dec. 31, pro-Iranian protesters backed by many members of the same militia responded by breaking into the American Embassy compound in Baghdad and setting fires. Worried about repeats of the 1979 embassy takeover in Iran or the 2012 attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, Mr. Trump and his team ordered more than 100 Marines to rush to Baghdad from Kuwait.

The Marines received little information about their mission or what was happening on the ground as they loaded their magazines with ammunition. All they knew was they were being sent to secure the embassy with one clear order: If protesters entered the compound, kill them.

Some of the Marines made dry jokes about the movie, “Rules of Engagement,” starring Samuel L. Jackson as a commander whose unit fires on a crowd of embassy protesters, stirring an international episode and a court-martial. But when the Marines reached Baghdad, none had to open fire. They used nonlethal weapons like tear gas to disperse protesters and the siege ended without bloodshed.

Westlake Legal Group iraq-embassy-baghdad-airport-attack-1578026455663-articleLarge-v11 Seven Days in January: How Trump Pushed U.S. and Iran to the Brink of War United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Suleimani, Qassim Pompeo, Mike Military Bases and Installations Iran Esper, Mark T Drones (Pilotless Planes) Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)

Maps: How the Confrontation Between the U.S. and Iran Escalated

Here’s how the situation developed over the last two weeks.

Still, watching television in Florida, Mr. Trump grew agitated by the chaos and ready to authorize a more robust response. And on Dec. 31, even as the protests were beginning, a top secret memo started circulating, signed by Robert C. O’Brien, his national security adviser, and listing potential targets, including an Iranian energy facility and a command-and-control ship used by the Revolutionary Guards to direct small boats that harass oil tankers in the waters around Iran. The ship had been an irritant to Americans for months, especially after a series of covert attacks on oil tankers.

The memo also listed a more provocative option — targeting specific Iranian officials for death by military strike. Among the targets mentioned, according to officials who saw it, was Abdul Reza Shahlai, an Iranian commander in Yemen who helped finance armed groups across the region.

Another name on the list: General Suleimani.

General Suleimani was hardly a household name in the United States, but as far as American officials were concerned, he was responsible for more instability and death in the Middle East than almost anyone.

As the head of the elite Quds Force, General Suleimani was effectively the second-most powerful man in Iran and had a hand in managing proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, including a campaign of roadside bombs and other attacks that killed an estimated 600 American troops during the height of the Iraq war.

At 62, with a narrow face, gray hair and a close-cropped beard, General Suleimani was known for traveling without body armor or personal protection, collaborating with some of the most ruthless figures in the region while sharing meals with the fighters and telling them to take care of their mothers, according to a Hezbollah field commander who met him in Syria.

After decades of working in the shadows, General Suleimani had emerged in recent years following the Arab Spring and war with the Islamic State as the public figure most associated with Iran’s goal of achieving regional dominance. Photographs surfaced showing him visiting the front lines in Iraq or Syria, meeting with Iran’s supreme leader in Tehran or sitting down with the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. When President Bashar al-Assad of Syria visited Tehran last year, it was General Suleimani who welcomed him.

By the end of 2019, General Suleimani could boast of a number of Iranian accomplishments: Mr. Assad, a longtime Iranian ally, was safely in power in Damascus, Syria’s capital, prevailing in a bloody, multifront, yearslong civil war and the Quds Force had a permanent presence on Israel’s frontier. A number of militias General Suleimani had helped foster were receiving salaries from the Iraqi government and exerting power in Iraq’s political system. And the Islamic State had been defeated in Syria and Iraq thanks, in part, to ground forces he had overseen, one area where he and the United States shared interests.

For the past 18 months, officials said, there had been discussions about whether to target General Suleimani. Figuring that it would be too difficult to hit him in Iran, officials contemplated going after him during one of his frequent visits to Syria or Iraq and focused on developing agents in seven different entities to report on his movements — the Syrian Army, the Quds Force in Damascus, Hezbollah in Damascus, the Damascus and Baghdad airports and the Kataib Hezbollah and Popular Mobilization forces in Iraq.

By the time tensions with Iran spiked in May with attacks on four oil tankers, John R. Bolton, then the president’s national security adviser, asked the military and intelligence agencies to produce new options to deter Iranian aggression. Among those presented to Mr. Bolton was killing General Suleimani and other leaders of the Revolutionary Guards. At that point, work to track General Suleimani’s travels grew more intense.

By September, the United States Central Command and Joint Special Operations Command were brought into the process to plan a possible operation. Various alternatives were discussed, some in Syria, some in Iraq. Syria seemed more complicated, both because the American military had less freedom of movement there and because General Suleimani spent most of his time with Hezbollah officers and officials did not want to bring them into the mix and risk a new war with Israel.

Agents recruited in Syria and Iraq reported from time to time on General Suleimani’s movements, according to an official involved. Surveillance revealed that he flew on a number of airlines and sometimes tickets for a trip were bought on more than one to throw off pursuers. He would be delivered to his plane at the last possible moment, then sit in the front row of business class so he could get off first and depart quickly.

General Suleimani set off on his last trip on New Year’s Day, flying to Damascus and then heading by car to Lebanon to meet with Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, before returning to Damascus that evening. During their meeting, Mr. Nasrallah said in a later speech, he warned General Suleimani that the American news media was focusing on him and publishing his photograph.

“This was media and political preparation for his assassination,” Mr. Nasrallah said.

But as he recalled, General Suleimani laughed, and said that, in fact, he hoped to die a martyr and asked Mr. Nasrallah to pray that he would.

That same day, at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., Gina Haspel was working to fulfill that prayer.

Ms. Haspel, the director, was shown intelligence indicating that General Suleimani was preparing to move from Syria to Iraq. Officials told her there was additional intelligence that he was working on a large-scale attack intended to drive American forces out of the Middle East.

There was no single definitive piece of intelligence. Instead, officials said, C.I.A. officers spoke of the “mosaic effect,” multiple scraps of information that came together indicating that General Suleimani was organizing proxy forces around the region, including in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, to attack American embassies and bases. Several officials said they did not have enough concrete information to describe such a threat as “imminent,” despite Mr. Pompeo’s assertion, but they did see a worrying pattern.

While Mr. Pompeo also claimed later that such an attack could kill “hundreds,” other officials said they had no specific intelligence suggesting that. Most American facilities in the region have been heavily fortified for years and such an immense death toll would be unlikely; at no point in the last two decades, even during the worst of the Iraq war, have any hostile forces been able to pull off such a deadly assault on Americans at once.

Nonetheless, Ms. Haspel was convinced there was evidence of a coming attack and argued the consequences of not striking General Suleimani were more dangerous than waiting, officials said. While others worried about reprisals, she reassured colleagues that Iran’s response would be measured. Indeed, she predicted the most likely response would be an ineffectual missile strike from Iran on Iraqi bases where American troops were stationed.

“If past is prologue, we have learned that when we enforce a red line with Iran, when Iran gets rapped on the knuckles, they tactically retreat,” said Dan Hoffman, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Iraq. “The retreat might be ephemeral before Iran probes its enemies with more gradually escalating attacks, but we’ve seen it repeatedly.”

There was little dissent about killing General Suleimani among Mr. Trump’s senior advisers, but some Pentagon officials were shocked that the president picked what they considered the most extreme option and some intelligence officials worried that the possible long-term ramifications were not adequately considered, particularly if action on Iraqi soil prompted Iraq to expel American forces.

“The whole thing seems haphazard to me,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior C.I.A. official who retired last year.

The Trump administration has said that General Suleimani was going to Baghdad as part of the attack plot, but there are different theories about the purpose of his visit.

General Suleimani had long played a role as power broker in Iraqi politics, and two Iraqi politicians with links to Iran said he was coming to Baghdad to help break an impasse over replacing the prime minister after the collapse of the government in November in the face of anti-Iran protests.

But Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, still serving as a caretaker until a new government is formed, told Parliament after the drone strike that General Suleimani had another goal — to bring an Iranian response to a Saudi offer to reduce tensions. The shadow conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia had been heating up. After Iranian forces were blamed for an attack on two Saudi oil facilities in September and Mr. Trump opted against a military response, Saudi officials worried that they were vulnerable and opened a back channel.

In his speech to Parliament, Mr. Abdul Mahdi said he had planned to meet with General Suleimani a few hours after his arrival in Baghdad. “It was expected that he was carrying a message for me from the Iranian side responding to the Saudi message that we had sent to the Iranian side to reach agreements and breakthroughs,” Mr. Abdul Mahdi said.

A Saudi official said he was unaware of any message carried by General Suleimani and some analysts doubted Mr. Abdul Mahdi’s account. “That is laughable,” said Mohammed Alyahya, the editor in chief of Al Arabiya English, a Saudi news site. “Suddenly, this man is a diplomat extraordinaire one day before he died?”

Another theory, advanced by an intelligence official involved in the operation, held that General Suleimani was visiting Iraq to quash anti-Iranian protests by having his Shia militia break them up by force. He hoped to install a new anti-American government that might even throw out United States forces.

Whatever his goals, they died with him in the mangled wreckage at Baghdad’s airport. Altogether, 10 people were killed — General Suleimani, Mr. al-Muhandis and their aides. Mr. al-Muhandis had helped found Kataib Hezbollah, the militia held responsible for the Dec. 27 rocket attack that killed the American contractor.

The New York Times

But another Iranian commander escaped. The same night General Suleimani died, American forces tried to kill Mr. Shahlai, the Quds Force commander in Yemen mentioned in Mr. O’Brien’s memo. Still, the attack failed because of an undisclosed problem with the intelligence.

Iran braced for more. “There was a state of mobilization to get ready in case that was the first stage in a wider plan,” said Mohammed Obeid, a Lebanese political activist with ties to Iran’s “resistance axis” in the region. “There could have been other steps that the Americans or the Israelis would take, broadening the circle of confrontation.”

Mr. Trump planned to play golf the next morning, Jan. 4, but advisers concluded it would send the wrong message as General Suleimani’s death stirred unrest around the Middle East and raised the prospect of a wider conflict with Iran.

The president was initially upbeat, expecting the operation to be greeted with applause much like the raid in October that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. Indeed, Mr. Trump opened his first statement to reporters on the mission that Friday by describing General Suleimani as the “No. 1 terrorist anywhere in the world,” much as he had opened his statement a couple of months ago calling Mr. al-Baghdadi the “world’s No. 1 terrorist leader.”

But as the president watched television over the weekend, he grew angry that critics were accusing him of reckless escalation. He sought validation from guests at his Florida clubs, recounting details of the Baghdad Embassy protests and drinking in their praise for his decisiveness. He told some associates that he wanted to preserve the support of Republican hawks in the Senate in the coming impeachment trial, naming Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas as an example, even though they had not spoken about Iran since before Christmas.

While Mr. Trump tipped off another hawk, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who was visiting in Florida, his administration gave no advance warning to its European allies or Persian Gulf partners in advance of the strike. The only foreign leader who appeared in the know was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who had spoken with Mr. Pompeo before the attack and later offered a cryptic public hint hours before it took place.

“We know that our region is stormy; very, very dramatic things are happening in it,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters, unprompted, on the tarmac in Tel Aviv before departing for a visit to Athens. He went on to offer support for the United States “and to its full right to defend itself and its citizens.”

Israeli leaders were later pleased by the death of General Suleimani, one of their deadliest enemies, but remained silent lest they provoke retaliation, even as shelter supplies were checked and a ski resort near the Syrian frontier was briefly closed.

Yet some figured that if Hezbollah were to attack Israel on Iran’s behalf, it might be better to have that battle now. “This camp believes that there will be such a clash anyway and the best timing is before the U.S. elections — and that Israel may lose this president in the White House,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

In Riyadh, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was unsettled. Despite his hawkish approach to Iran, he has been recently accepting offers from Pakistanis, Omanis, Iraqis and others to mediate. Now, he immediately dispatched his younger brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the deputy defense minister, on an emergency mission to the White House.

The Saudi view was “hitting Suleimani is great, but what is the plan?” said Sir John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Riyadh. “If there is a plan, we are down with it. If not, we all have to de-escalate.”

Prince Khalid was pleased by whatever Mr. Trump told him, telling diplomats afterward that the royal family was glad the president had dealt Iran a serious blow — and relieved that he did not seem inclined to escalate further.

But many were not sure. Mr. Trump issued bellicose threats to destroy Iran if it retaliated, including cultural treasures in violation of international law, touching off international outrage and forcing his own defense secretary to publicly disavow the threat, saying it would be a war crime.

Mr. Trump was largely alone on the world stage. No major European power, not even Britain, voiced support for the drone strike, even as leaders agreed that General Suleimani had blood on his hands. As Le Monde, the French newspaper, put it, the rift signaled “a new stage in the trans-Atlantic divorce over the Middle East.”

Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran has been a major point of contention. European leaders deeply resented the unilateral pullout, seeing that as a grave error that started a cycle of sanctions and recriminations that led to the seven-day showdown and now the restart of the Iranian nuclear program.

When Mr. Pompeo phoned his European counterparts after the strike, they expressed concern. In a 15-minute call, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany said the killing had not made it any easier to stabilize the region. Mr. Pompeo responded that the situation was now more stable.

The French and Japanese both offered to serve as mediators, but that only annoyed Mr. Trump, who dislikes middlemen. So the Europeans focused on keeping Tehran from overreacting.

Video

transcript

Video Shows Aftermath of U.S. Strike That Killed Top Iran Commander

President Trump authorized the attack early Friday at Baghdad International Airport that killed Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.

Suleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. But we caught him in the act. We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

Westlake Legal Group merlin_166605342_bb1d07c1-25be-4a96-8815-857e98b24a47-videoSixteenByNine3000 Seven Days in January: How Trump Pushed U.S. and Iran to the Brink of War United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Suleimani, Qassim Pompeo, Mike Military Bases and Installations Iran Esper, Mark T Drones (Pilotless Planes) Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)

President Trump authorized the attack early Friday at Baghdad International Airport that killed Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.CreditCredit…Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg News

A senior German diplomat sent a text message to his Iranian counterpart urging calm. He got back a terse, though polite, message. In a series of phone calls, European officials tried to give the Iranians a sense that it was not them against the rest of the world but that in fact there was a global public beyond the United States, according to one European diplomat.

President Emmanuel Macron of France played an active role, reaching out to both sides. “Macron’s specificity is that he does not approve, but he also does not condemn,” said Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria.

Mr. Macron reached Mr. Trump on Sunday and emphasized the need for de-escalation. Mr. Trump suggested he was still open to diplomacy. All the Iranians had to do was come to him and they could make a deal, Mr. Trump said, according to a senior French official.

Two days later, Mr. Macron spoke with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and reminded him that he had “missed a chance in September” to talk directly with Mr. Trump in a phone call Mr. Macron tried to arrange on the sidelines of the annual United Nations session.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany spoke with Mr. Trump, too, and expressed concern for Iraq’s stability if allied troops withdrew. If the United States stayed, she said, Germany would also. Mr. Trump joked that Germany was welcome to lead the international force and replace the Americans. Ms. Merkel laughed.

The most important European country in these seven days, it turned out, was Switzerland, which has served as the intermediary between the United States and Iran since they broke off diplomatic relations in 1980.

Hours after the strike, Markus Leitner, the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, headed to the Iranian Foreign Ministry for the first of two visits that day, according to a Swiss analyst. The Americans had sent a letter to the Iranians through the Swiss warning against any retaliation for the drone strike that would incite further military action by Mr. Trump.

The Americans “said that if you want to get revenge, get revenge in proportion to what we did,” Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, told Iranian state television.

American officials disputed that characterization and analysts doubted it was that explicit, although that could be how Tehran interpreted it. In any case, Mr. Leitner went back to the Foreign Ministry at day’s end for the Iranian response.

Unbeknown to the Iranians, Mr. Trump had agreed to targeting the other sites originally considered — the oil and gas facility and the command-in-control ship — as part of any further retaliation that might be necessary if Iran responded to the drone strike. Despite Mr. Trump’s threat, none of the targets on the list were actually cultural, an official said; that was just presidential bluster, aggravated by an instinct to double down in the face of criticism.

On Tuesday, the Defense Special Missile and Astronautics Center, part of the National Security Agency, pulled together multiple strands of information, including overhead imagery and communication intercepts, to conclude that an Iranian missile strike on Iraqi bases was coming, officials said. The center sent the warning to the White House.

Vice President Mike Pence and Mr. O’Brien immediately headed to the Situation Room in the basement, joined later by the president and Mr. Pompeo. At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by its chairman, Gen. Mark A. Milley, convened in a third-floor conference room and discussed how to move troops and families in the region to safer locations.

Just after 5:30 p.m., an almost robotic voice came over a speakerphone in the Situation Room. “Sir, we have indications of a launch at 22:30 Zulu Time from western Iran in the direction of Iraq, Syria and Jordan.” Reports began coming in faster. The missiles were staggered but most were streaking toward Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, home to 2,000 American troops.

The barrage ended after an hour but base commanders ordered troops to remain in shelter in case more missiles came. Around 7:30, about an hour after the strikes concluded, Mr. Esper and General Milley headed to the White House to meet with Mr. Trump.

The missiles damaged a helicopter, some tents and other structures but, thanks to the advance warning, inflicted no casualties. And through the Swiss came another message: That was it. That was their retribution.

The Americans were struck by the speed of the communication — it was shown to Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo within five minutes after the Swiss received it from Tehran. They passed the message by encrypted fax to their embassy in Washington and then to Brian H. Hook, the special representative on Iran, two minutes after the Iranians gave it to them.

Mr. Esper, a veteran of the Persian Gulf war of 1991, counseled caution. “Let’s stay calm,” he said. “The ball is in our court. There’s no rush to do anything. Let’s all sleep on it.”

By the time Mr. Trump retired to the residence for the night, advisers said, he was relieved there had been no casualties and eager for a reset, a path away from a deeper conflict. He posted a reassuring tweet: “All is well!”

The next morning Mr. Trump addressed the nation from the White House, and while he excoriated Iran’s “campaign of terror,” he made clear he would not retaliate further.

“Iran appears to be standing down,” he said, without revealing the secret message sent through the Swiss, adding that he was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

The immediate crisis over, Mr. Trump sent top officials to brief Congress, but the closed-door sessions in a secure facility where lawmakers had to surrender their telephones did little to quell concerns about the justification for the drone strike.

In the House briefing, Mr. Pompeo offered a brief introduction followed by presentations by Ms. Haspel, Mr. Esper, General Milley and Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. All three offered vague but emphatic assertions of intelligence indicating an imminent threat by General Suleimani. General Milley said the evidence could not be clearer and was the “best intelligence” he had seen during his career.

But they refused to describe it in detail. One lawmaker said the information was no more secret than what could be found on Wikipedia. At one point, General Milley said the intelligence showed discussion by General Suleimani of potential terrorist attacks on three specific dates in late December or early January.

“What were the threats?” several lawmakers in the audience shouted, but General Milley declined to say.

Another lawmaker noted that the three dates General Milley cited were all before the strike on General Suleimani and no attacks actually occurred then.

“What really came across was a sense of disdain and contempt for the legislative branch,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia. “They didn’t even pretend to be engaged in information sharing and consultation.”

Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, called the session for senators “probably the worst briefing” in his nine years in office. “We never got to the details,” he said. “Every time we got close, they said, ‘Well, we can’t discuss that here because it’s sensitive.’”

If it was too sensitive for Congress, it was not too sensitive for Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host. In an interview broadcast on Friday, Mr. Trump told her that the threat had been to four American embassies, even as other officials said privately that they did not have concrete evidence of General Suleimani’s targets.

After seven days of saber rattling and fresh deployments, the immediate march to war had ended. But inside the security establishment, few consider the crisis to be over. In the months to come, they expect Iran to regroup and find ways to strike back.

“Suleimani as a person inspired the masses, he was a national icon, he symbolized the struggle,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who studies Iran. “But he was also a very small part of a very large organization.”

“Yes, it is decapitated,” he added, “but the organization is not destroyed.”

Peter Baker and Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, David D. Kirkpatrick from London, and Alissa J. Rubin from Baghdad. Reporting was contributed by Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Lara Jakes, Mark Mazzetti, David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Michael D. Shear, Noah Weiland and Edward Wong from Washington; Farnaz Fassihi and Maggie Haberman from New York; Rukmini Callimachi from Balchik, Bulgaria, and Bucharest, Romania; Adam Nossiter and Constant Méheut from Paris; Steven Erlanger from Brussels; Katrin Bennhold from Berlin; Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva; David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem; Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad from Beirut; and Falih Hassan from Baghdad.

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Seven Days in January: How the U.S. and Iran Approached the Brink of War

WASHINGTON — The plane was late and the kill team was worried. International listings showed that Cham Wings Airlines Flight 6Q501, scheduled to take off from Damascus at 7:30 p.m. for Baghdad, had departed, but in fact, an informant at the airport reported, it was still on the ground and the targeted passenger had not yet shown up.

The hours ticked by and some involved in the operation wondered if it should be called off. Then, just before the plane door closed, a convoy of cars pulled up on the tarmac carrying Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s security mastermind, who climbed on board along with two escorts. Flight 6Q501 lifted off, three hours late, bound for the Iraqi capital.

The plane landed at Baghdad International Airport just after midnight, at 12:36 a.m., and the first to disembark were General Suleimani and his entourage. Waiting at the bottom of the gangway was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi official in charge of militias and close to Iran. Two cars carrying the group headed into the night — shadowed by American MQ-9 Reaper drones. At 12:47, the first of several missiles smashed into the vehicles, engulfing them in flames and leaving 10 charred bodies inside.

The operation that took out General Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, propelled the United States to the precipice of war with Iran and plunged the world into seven days of roiling uncertainty. The story of those seven days, and the secret planning in the months preceding them, ranks as the most perilous chapter so far in President Trump’s three years in office after his decision to launch an audacious strike on Iran, and his attempt through allies and a back channel to keep the ensuing crisis from mushrooming out of control.

The president’s decision to ratchet up decades of simmering conflict with Iran set off an extraordinary worldwide drama, much of which played out behind the scenes. In capitals from Europe to the Middle East, leaders and diplomats sought to head off a full-fledged new war while at the White House and Pentagon, the president and his advisers ordered more troops to the region.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler was so alarmed he dispatched his brother to Washington for a clandestine meeting with Mr. Trump. European leaders, incensed at being kept in the dark, scrambled to keep Iran from escalating. If it did, Americans developed plans to strike a command-and-control ship and conduct a cyberattack to partly disable Iran’s oil and gas sector.

ImageWestlake Legal Group 11dc-sevendays6-articleLarge Seven Days in January: How the U.S. and Iran Approached the Brink of War United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Suleimani, Qassim Pompeo, Mike Military Bases and Installations Iran Esper, Mark T Drones (Pilotless Planes) Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)

The aftermath of the airstrike on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani’s car early Friday at the Baghdad airport. Altogether, 10 people were killed.Credit…Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office, via Associated Press

But the United States also sent secret messages through Swiss intermediaries urging Iran not to respond so forcefully that Mr. Trump would feel compelled to go even further. After it did respond, firing 16 missiles at bases housing American troops without hurting anyone as a relatively harmless show of force, a message came back through the Swiss saying that would be the end of its reprisal for now. The message, forwarded to Washington within five minutes after it was received, persuaded the president to stand down.

When the week ended without the war many feared, Mr. Trump boasted that he had taken out an American enemy. But the struggle between two nations is not really over. Iran may find other ways to take revenge. Iraqi leaders may expel American forces, accomplishing in death what General Suleimani tried and failed to do in life. And in the confusion, a Ukrainian civilian passenger jet was destroyed by an Iranian missile, killing 176 people.

The episode briefly gave Mr. Trump’s allies something to cheer, distracting from the coming Senate impeachment trial, but now he faces questions even among Republicans about the shifting justifications for the strike that he and his national security team have offered. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially cited the need to forestall an “imminent” attack and the president has amplified that to say four American embassies were targeted.

But administration officials said they did not actually know when or where such an attack might occur and one State Department official said it was “a mistake” to use the word “imminent.” And some Pentagon officials were stunned that Mr. Trump picked what they considered a radical option with unforeseen consequences.

This account, based on interviews with dozens of Trump administration officials, military officers, diplomats, intelligence analysts and others in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, offers new details about what may be the most consequential seven days of the Trump presidency.

The confrontation may have actually begun by accident. For years, Iran has sponsored proxy forces in Iraq, competing for influence with American troops who first arrived in the invasion of 2003. Starting last fall, Iranian-backed militias launched rockets at Iraqi bases that house American troops, shattering nerves more than doing much damage.

So when rockets smashed into the K1 military base near Kirkuk on Dec. 27, killing an American civilian contractor, Nawres Waleed Hamid, and injuring several others, the only surprise was the casualties. Kataib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia group held responsible, had fired at least five other rocket attacks on bases with Americans in the previous month without deadly results.

American intelligence officials monitoring communications between Kataib Hezbollah and General Suleimani’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps learned that the Iranians wanted to keep the pressure on the Americans but had not intended to escalate the low-level conflict. The rockets landed in a place and at a time when American and Iraqi personnel normally were not there and it was only by unlucky chance that Mr. Hamid was killed, American officials said.

But that did not matter to Mr. Trump and his team. An American was dead and the president who had called off a retaliatory strike with 10 minutes to go in June and otherwise refrained from military action in response to Iranian provocations now faced a choice.

Advisers told him Iran had probably misinterpreted his previous reluctance to use force as a sign of weakness. To reestablish deterrence, he should authorize a tough response. On holiday at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, the president agreed to strikes on five sites in Iraq and Syria two days later, killing at least 25 members of a pro-Iranian militia and injuring at least 50 more.

Two days later, on Dec. 31, pro-Iranian protesters backed by many members of the same militia responded by breaking into the American Embassy compound in Baghdad and setting fires. Worried about repeats of the 1979 embassy takeover in Iran or the 2012 attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, Mr. Trump and his team ordered more than 100 Marines to rush to Baghdad from Kuwait.

The Marines received little information about their mission or what was happening on the ground as they loaded their magazines with ammunition. All they knew was they were being sent to secure the embassy with one clear order: If protesters entered the compound, kill them.

Some of the Marines made dry jokes about the movie, “Rules of Engagement,” starring Samuel L. Jackson as a commander whose unit fires on a crowd of embassy protesters, stirring an international episode and a court-martial. But when the Marines reached Baghdad, none had to open fire. They used tear gas to disperse protesters and the siege ended without bloodshed.

Westlake Legal Group iraq-embassy-baghdad-airport-attack-1578026455663-articleLarge-v11 Seven Days in January: How the U.S. and Iran Approached the Brink of War United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Suleimani, Qassim Pompeo, Mike Military Bases and Installations Iran Esper, Mark T Drones (Pilotless Planes) Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)

Maps: How the Confrontation Between the U.S. and Iran Escalated

Here’s how the situation developed over the last two weeks.

Still, watching television in Florida, Mr. Trump grew agitated by the chaos and ready to authorize a more robust response. And on Dec. 31, even as the protests were beginning, a top secret memo began circulating, signed by Robert C. O’Brien, his national security adviser and, listing potential targets, including an Iranian energy facility and a command-and-control ship used by the Revolutionary Guards to direct small boats that harass oil tankers in the waters around Iran. The ship had been an irritant to Americans for months, especially after a series of covert attacks on oil tankers.

The memo also listed a more provocative option — targeting specific Iranian officials for death by military strike. Among the targets mentioned, according to officials who saw it, was Abdul Reza Shahlai, an Iranian commander in Yemen who helped finance armed groups across the region.

Another name on the list: General Suleimani.

General Suleimani was hardly a household name in the United States, but as far as American officials were concerned, he was responsible for more instability and death in the Middle East than almost anyone.

As the head of the elite Quds Force, General Suleimani was effectively the second-most powerful man in Iran and had a hand in managing proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, including a campaign of roadside bombs and other attacks that killed an estimated 600 American troops during the height of the Iraq war.

At 62, with a narrow face, gray hair and a close-cropped beard, General Suleimani was known for traveling without body armor or personal protection, collaborating with some of the most ruthless figures in the region while sharing meals with the fighters and telling them to take care of their mothers, according to a Hezbollah field commander who met him in Syria.

After decades of working in the shadows, General Suleimani had emerged in recent years following the Arab Spring and war with the Islamic State as the public figure most associated with Iran’s goal of achieving regional dominance. Photographs surfaced showing him visiting the front lines in Iraq or Syria, meeting with Iran’s supreme leader in Tehran or sitting down with the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. When President Bashar al-Assad of Syria visited Tehran last year, it was General Suleimani who welcomed him.

By the end of 2019, General Suleimani could boast of a number of Iranian accomplishments: Mr. Assad, a longtime Iranian ally, was safely in power in Damascus, Syria’s capital, prevailing in a bloody, multifront, yearslong civil war and the Quds Force had a permanent presence on Israel’s frontier. A number of militias General Suleimani had helped foster were receiving salaries from the Iraqi government and exerting power in Iraq’s political system. And the Islamic State had been defeated in Syria and Iraq thanks, in part, to ground forces he had overseen, one area where he and the United States shared interests.

For the past 18 months, officials said, there had been discussions about whether to target General Suleimani. Figuring that it would be too difficult to hit him in Iran, officials contemplated going after him during one of his frequent visits to Syria or Iraq and focused on developing agents in seven different entities to report on his movements — the Syrian Army, the Quds Force in Damascus, Hezbollah in Damascus, the Damascus and Baghdad airports and the Kataib Hezbollah and Popular Mobilization forces in Iraq.

By the time tensions with Iran spiked in May with attacks on four oil tankers, John R. Bolton, then the president’s national security adviser, asked the military and intelligence agencies to produce new options to deter Iranian aggression. Among those presented to Mr. Bolton was killing General Suleimani and other leaders of the Revolutionary Guards. At that point, work to track General Suleimani’s travels grew more intense.

By September, the United States Central Command and Joint Special Operations Command were brought into the process to plan a possible operation. Various alternatives were discussed, some in Syria, some in Iraq. Syria seemed more complicated, both because the American military had less freedom of movement there and because General Suleimani spent most of his time with Hezbollah officers and officials did not want to bring them into the mix and risk a new war with Israel.

Agents recruited in Syria and Iraq reported from time to time on General Suleimani’s movements, according to an official involved. Surveillance revealed that he flew on a number of airlines and sometimes tickets for a trip were bought on more than one to throw off pursuers. He would be delivered to his plane at the last possible moment, then sit in the front row of business class so he could get off first and depart quickly.

General Suleimani set off on his last trip on New Year’s Day, flying to Damascus and then heading by car to Lebanon to meet with Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, before returning to Damascus that evening. During their meeting, Mr. Nasrallah said in a later speech, he warned General Suleimani that the American news media was focusing on him and publishing his photograph.

“This was media and political preparation for his assassination,” Mr. Nasrallah said.

But as he recalled, General Suleimani laughed, and said that, in fact, he hoped to die a martyr and asked Mr. Nasrallah to pray that he would.

That same day, at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., Gina Haspel was working to fulfill that prayer.

Ms. Haspel, the director, was shown intelligence indicating that General Suleimani was preparing to move from Syria to Iraq. Officials told her there was additional intelligence that he was working on a large-scale attack intended to drive American forces out of the Middle East.

There was no single definitive piece of intelligence. Instead, officials said, C.I.A. officers spoke of the “mosaic effect,” multiple scraps of information that came together indicating that General Suleimani was organizing proxy forces around the region, including in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, to attack American embassies and bases. Several officials said they did not have enough concrete information to describe such a threat as “imminent,” despite Mr. Pompeo’s assertion, but they did see a worrying pattern.

While Mr. Pompeo also claimed later that such an attack could kill “hundreds,” other officials said they had no specific intelligence suggesting that. Most American facilities in the region have been heavily fortified for years and such an immense death toll would be unlikely; at no point in the last two decades, even during the worst of the Iraq war, have any hostile forces been able to pull off such a deadly assault on Americans at once.

Nonetheless, Ms. Haspel was convinced there was evidence of a coming attack and argued the consequences of not striking General Suleimani were more dangerous than waiting, officials said. While others worried about reprisals, she reassured colleagues that Iran’s response would be measured. Indeed, she predicted the most likely response would be an ineffectual missile strike from Iran on Iraqi bases where American troops were stationed.

“If past is prologue, we have learned that when we enforce a red line with Iran, when Iran gets rapped on the knuckles, they tactically retreat,” said Dan Hoffman, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Iraq. “The retreat might be ephemeral before Iran probes its enemies with more gradually escalating attacks, but we’ve seen it repeatedly.”

There was little dissent about killing General Suleimani among Mr. Trump’s senior advisers, but some Pentagon officials were shocked that the president picked what they considered the most extreme option and some intelligence officials worried that the possible long-term ramifications were not adequately considered, particularly if action on Iraqi soil prompted Iraq to expel American forces.

“The whole thing seems haphazard to me,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior C.I.A. official who retired last year.

The Trump administration has said that General Suleimani was going to Baghdad as part of the attack plot, but there are different theories about the purpose of his visit.

General Suleimani had long played a role as power broker in Iraqi politics, and two Iraqi politicians with links to Iran said he was coming to Baghdad to help break an impasse over replacing the prime minister after the collapse of the government in November in the face of anti-Iran protests.

But Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, still serving as a caretaker until a new government is formed, told Parliament after the drone strike that General Suleimani had another goal — to bring an Iranian response to a Saudi offer to reduce tensions. The shadow conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia had been heating up. After Iranian forces were blamed for an attack on two Saudi oil facilities in September and Mr. Trump opted against a military response, Saudi officials worried that they were vulnerable and opened a back channel.

In his speech to Parliament, Mr. Abdul Mahdi said he had planned to meet with General Suleimani a few hours after his arrival in Baghdad. “It was expected that he was carrying a message for me from the Iranian side responding to the Saudi message that we had sent to the Iranian side to reach agreements and breakthroughs,” Mr. Abdul Mahdi said.

A Saudi official said he was unaware of any message carried by General Suleimani and some analysts doubted Mr. Abdul Mahdi’s account. “That is laughable,” said Mohammed Alyahya, the editor in chief of Al Arabiya English, a Saudi news site. “Suddenly, this man is a diplomat extraordinaire one day before he died?”

Another theory, advanced by an intelligence official involved in the operation, held that General Suleimani was visiting Iraq to quash anti-Iranian protests by having his Shia militia break them up by force. He hoped to install a new anti-American government that might even throw out United States forces.

Whatever his goals, they died with him in the mangled wreckage at Baghdad’s airport. Altogether, 10 people were killed — General Suleimani, Mr. al-Muhandis and their aides. Mr. al-Muhandis had helped found Kataib Hezbollah, the militia held responsible for the Dec. 27 rocket attack that killed the American contractor.

The New York Times

But another Iranian commander escaped. The same night General Suleimani died, American forces tried to kill Mr. Shahlai, the Quds Force commander in Yemen mentioned in Mr. O’Brien’s memo. Still, the attack failed because of an undisclosed problem with the intelligence.

Iran braced for more. “There was a state of mobilization to get ready in case that was the first stage in a wider plan,” said Mohammed Obeid, a Lebanese political activist with ties to Iran’s “resistance axis” in the region. “There could have been other steps that the Americans or the Israelis would take, broadening the circle of confrontation.”

Mr. Trump planned to play golf the next morning, Jan. 4, but advisers concluded it would send the wrong message as General Suleimani’s death stirred unrest around the Middle East and raised the prospect of a wider conflict with Iran.

The president was initially upbeat, expecting the operation to be greeted with applause much like the raid in October that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. Indeed, Mr. Trump opened his first statement to reporters on the mission that Friday by describing General Suleimani as the “No. 1 terrorist anywhere in the world,” much as he had opened his statement a couple of months ago calling Mr. al-Baghdadi the “world’s No. 1 terrorist leader.”

But as the president watched television over the weekend, he grew angry that critics were accusing him of reckless escalation. He sought validation from guests at his Florida clubs, recounting details of the Baghdad Embassy protests and drinking in their praise for his decisiveness. He told some associates that he wanted to preserve the support of Republican hawks in the Senate in the coming impeachment trial, naming Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas as an example, even though they had not spoken about Iran since before Christmas.

While Mr. Trump tipped off another hawk, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who was visiting in Florida, his administration gave no advance warning to its European allies or Persian Gulf partners in advance of the strike. The only foreign leader who appeared in the know was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who had spoken with Mr. Pompeo before the attack and later offered a cryptic public hint hours before it took place.

“We know that our region is stormy; very, very dramatic things are happening in it,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters, unprompted, on the tarmac in Tel Aviv before departing for a visit to Athens. He went on to offer support for the United States “and to its full right to defend itself and its citizens.”

Israeli leaders were later pleased by the death of General Suleimani, one of their deadliest enemies, but remained silent lest they provoke retaliation, even as shelter supplies were checked and a ski resort near the Syrian frontier was briefly closed.

Yet some figured that if Hezbollah were to attack Israel on Iran’s behalf, it might be better to have that battle now. “This camp believes that there will be such a clash anyway and the best timing is before the U.S. elections — and that Israel may lose this president in the White House,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

In Riyadh, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was unsettled. Despite his hawkish approach to Iran, he has been recently accepting offers from Pakistanis, Omanis, Iraqis and others to mediate. Now, he immediately dispatched his younger brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the deputy defense minister, on an emergency mission to the White House.

The Saudi view was “hitting Suleimani is great, but what is the plan?” said Sir John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Riyadh. “If there is a plan, we are down with it. If not, we all have to de-escalate.”

Prince Khalid was pleased by whatever Mr. Trump told him, telling diplomats afterward that the royal family was glad the president had dealt Iran a serious blow — and relieved that he did not seem inclined to escalate further.

But many were not sure. Mr. Trump issued bellicose threats to destroy Iran if it retaliated, including cultural treasures in violation of international law, touching off international outrage and forcing his own defense secretary to publicly disavow the threat, saying it would be a war crime.

Mr. Trump was largely alone on the world stage. No major European power, not even Britain, voiced support for the drone strike, even as leaders agreed that General Suleimani had blood on his hands. As Le Monde, the French newspaper, put it, the rift signaled “a new stage in the trans-Atlantic divorce over the Middle East.”

Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran has been a major point of contention. European leaders deeply resented the unilateral pullout, seeing that as a grave error that started a cycle of sanctions and recriminations that led to the seven-day showdown and now the restart of the Iranian nuclear program.

When Mr. Pompeo phoned his European counterparts after the strike, they expressed concern. In a 15-minute call, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany said the killing had not made it any easier to stabilize the region. Mr. Pompeo responded that the situation was now more stable.

The French and Japanese both offered to serve as mediators, but that only annoyed Mr. Trump, who dislikes middlemen. So the Europeans focused on keeping Tehran from overreacting.

Video

transcript

Video Shows Aftermath of U.S. Strike That Killed Top Iran Commander

President Trump authorized the attack early Friday at Baghdad International Airport that killed Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.

Suleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. But we caught him in the act. We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

Westlake Legal Group merlin_166605342_bb1d07c1-25be-4a96-8815-857e98b24a47-videoSixteenByNine3000 Seven Days in January: How the U.S. and Iran Approached the Brink of War United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Suleimani, Qassim Pompeo, Mike Military Bases and Installations Iran Esper, Mark T Drones (Pilotless Planes) Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)

President Trump authorized the attack early Friday at Baghdad International Airport that killed Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.CreditCredit…Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg News

A senior German diplomat sent a text message to his Iranian counterpart urging calm. He got back a terse, though polite, message. In a series of phone calls, European officials tried to give the Iranians a sense that it was not them against the rest of the world but that in fact there was a global public beyond the United States, according to one European diplomat.

President Emmanuel Macron of France played an active role, reaching out to both sides. “Macron’s specificity is that he does not approve, but he also does not condemn,” said Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria.

Mr. Macron reached Mr. Trump on Sunday and emphasized the need for de-escalation. Mr. Trump suggested he was still open to diplomacy. All the Iranians had to do was come to him and they could make a deal, Mr. Trump said, according to a senior French official.

Two days later, Mr. Macron spoke with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and reminded him that he had “missed a chance in September” to talk directly with Mr. Trump in a phone call Mr. Macron tried to arrange on the sidelines of the annual United Nations session.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany spoke with Mr. Trump, too, and expressed concern for Iraq’s stability if allied troops withdrew. If the United States stayed, she said, Germany would also. Mr. Trump joked that Germany was welcome to lead the international force and replace the Americans. Ms. Merkel laughed.

The most important European country in these seven days, it turned out, was Switzerland, which has served as the intermediary between the United States and Iran since they broke off diplomatic relations in 1980.

Hours after the strike, Markus Leitner, the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, headed to the Iranian Foreign Ministry for the first of two visits that day, according to a Swiss analyst. The Americans had sent a letter to the Iranians through the Swiss warning against any retaliation for the drone strike that would incite further military action by Mr. Trump.

The Americans “said that if you want to get revenge, get revenge in proportion to what we did,” Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, told Iranian state television.

American officials disputed that characterization and analysts doubted it was that explicit, although that could be how Tehran interpreted it. In any case, Mr. Leitner went back to the Foreign Ministry at day’s end for the Iranian response.

Unbeknown to the Iranians, Mr. Trump had agreed to targeting the other sites originally considered — the oil and gas facility and the command-in-control ship — as part of any further retaliation that might be necessary if Iran responded to the drone strike. Despite Mr. Trump’s threat, none of the targets on the list were actually cultural, an official said; that was just presidential bluster, aggravated by an instinct to double down in the face of criticism.

On Tuesday, the Defense Special Missile and Astronautics Center, part of the National Security Agency, pulled together multiple strands of information, including overhead imagery and communication intercepts, to conclude that an Iranian missile strike on Iraqi bases was coming, officials said. The center sent the warning to the White House.

Vice President Mike Pence and Mr. O’Brien immediately headed to the Situation Room in the basement, joined later by the president and Mr. Pompeo. At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by its chairman, Gen. Mark A. Milley, convened in a third-floor conference room and discussed how to move troops and families in the region to safer locations.

Just after 5:30 p.m., an almost robotic voice came over a speakerphone in the Situation Room. “Sir, we have indications of a launch at 22:30 Zulu Time from western Iran in the direction of Iraq, Syria and Jordan.” Reports began coming in faster. The missiles were staggered but most were streaking toward Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, home to 2,000 American troops.

The barrage ended after an hour but base commanders ordered troops to remain in shelter in case more missiles came. Around 7:30, about an hour after the strikes concluded, Mr. Esper and General Milley headed to the White House to meet with Mr. Trump.

The missiles damaged a helicopter, some tents and other structures but, thanks to the advance warning, inflicted no casualties. And through the Swiss came another message: That was it. That was their retribution.

The Americans were struck by the speed of the communication — it was shown to Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo within five minutes after the Swiss received it from Tehran. They passed the message by encrypted fax to Brian H. Hook, the special representative on Iran in Washington, two minutes after the Iranians gave it to them.

Mr. Esper, a veteran of the Persian Gulf war of 1991, counseled caution. “Let’s stay calm,” he said. “The ball is in our court. There’s no rush to do anything. Let’s all sleep on it.”

By the time Mr. Trump retired to the residence for the night, advisers said, he was relieved there had been no casualties and eager for a reset, a path away from a deeper conflict. He posted a reassuring tweet: “All is well!”

The next morning Mr. Trump addressed the nation from the White House, and while he excoriated Iran’s “campaign of terror,” he made clear he would not retaliate further.

“Iran appears to be standing down,” he said, without revealing the secret message sent through the Swiss, adding that he was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

The immediate crisis over, Mr. Trump sent top officials to brief Congress, but the closed-door sessions in a secure facility where lawmakers had to surrender their telephones did little to quell concerns about the justification for the drone strike.

In the House briefing, Mr. Pompeo offered a brief introduction followed by presentations by Ms. Haspel, Mr. Esper, General Milley and Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. All three offered vague but emphatic assertions of intelligence indicating an imminent threat by General Suleimani. General Milley said the evidence could not be clearer and was the “best intelligence” he had seen during his career.

But they refused to describe it in detail. One lawmaker said the information was no more secret than what could be found on Wikipedia. At one point, General Milley said the intelligence showed discussion by General Suleimani of potential terrorist attacks on three specific dates in late December or early January.

“What were the threats?” several lawmakers in the audience shouted, but General Milley declined to say.

Another lawmaker noted that the three dates General Milley cited were all before the strike on General Suleimani and no attacks actually occurred then.

“What really came across was a sense of disdain and contempt for the legislative branch,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia. “They didn’t even pretend to be engaged in information sharing and consultation.”

Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, called the session for senators “probably the worst briefing” in his nine years in office. “We never got to the details,” he said. “Every time we got close, they said, ‘Well, we can’t discuss that here because it’s sensitive.’”

If it was too sensitive for Congress, it was not too sensitive for Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host. In an interview broadcast on Friday, Mr. Trump told her that the threat had been to four American embassies, even as other officials said privately that they did not have concrete evidence of General Suleimani’s targets.

After seven days of saber rattling and fresh deployments, the immediate march to war had ended. But inside the security establishment, few consider the crisis to be over. In the months to come, they expect Iran to regroup and find ways to strike back.

“Suleimani as a person inspired the masses, he was a national icon, he symbolized the struggle,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who studies Iran. “But he was also a very small part of a very large organization.”

“Yes, it is decapitated,” he added, “but the organization is not destroyed.”

Peter Baker and Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, David D. Kirkpatrick from London, and Alissa J. Rubin from Baghdad. Reporting was contributed by Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Lara Jakes, Mark Mazzetti, David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Michael D. Shear, Noah Weiland and Edward Wong from Washington; Rukmini Callimachi; Maggie Haberman and Farnaz Fassihi from New York; Adam Nossiter and Constant Méheut from Paris; Steven Erlanger from Brussels; Katrin Bennhold from Berlin; Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva; David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem; Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad from Beirut; and Falih Hassan from Baghdad.

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Seven Days in January: How the U.S. and Iran Approached the Brink of War

WASHINGTON — The plane was late and the kill team was worried. International listings showed that Cham Wings Airlines Flight 6Q501, scheduled to take off from Damascus at 7:30 p.m. for Baghdad, had departed, but in fact, an informant at the airport reported, it was still on the ground and the targeted passenger had not yet shown up.

The hours ticked by and some involved in the operation wondered if it should be called off. Then, just before the plane door closed, a convoy of cars pulled up on the tarmac carrying Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s security mastermind, who climbed on board along with two escorts. Flight 6Q501 lifted off, three hours late, bound for the Iraqi capital.

The plane landed at Baghdad International Airport just after midnight, at 12:36 a.m., and the first to disembark were General Suleimani and his entourage. Waiting at the bottom of the gangway was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi official in charge of militias and close to Iran. Two cars carrying the group headed into the night — shadowed by American MQ-9 Reaper drones. At 12:47, the first of several missiles smashed into the vehicles, engulfing them in flames and leaving 10 charred bodies inside.

The operation that took out General Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, propelled the United States to the precipice of war with Iran and plunged the world into seven days of roiling uncertainty. The story of those seven days, and the secret planning in the months preceding them, ranks as the most perilous chapter so far in President Trump’s three years in office after his decision to launch an audacious strike on Iran, and his attempt through allies and a back channel to keep the ensuing crisis from mushrooming out of control.

The president’s decision to ratchet up decades of simmering conflict with Iran set off an extraordinary worldwide drama, much of which played out behind the scenes. In capitals from Europe to the Middle East, leaders and diplomats sought to head off a full-fledged new war while at the White House and Pentagon, the president and his advisers ordered more troops to the region.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler was so alarmed he dispatched his brother to Washington for a clandestine meeting with Mr. Trump. European leaders, incensed at being kept in the dark, scrambled to keep Iran from escalating. If it did, Americans developed plans to strike a command-and-control ship and conduct a cyberattack to partly disable Iran’s oil and gas sector.

ImageWestlake Legal Group 11dc-sevendays6-articleLarge Seven Days in January: How the U.S. and Iran Approached the Brink of War United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Suleimani, Qassim Pompeo, Mike Military Bases and Installations Iran Esper, Mark T Drones (Pilotless Planes) Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)

The aftermath of the airstrike on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani’s car early Friday at the Baghdad airport. Altogether, 10 people were killed.Credit…Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office, via Associated Press

But the United States also sent secret messages through Swiss intermediaries urging Iran not to respond so forcefully that Mr. Trump would feel compelled to go even further. After it did respond, firing 16 missiles at bases housing American troops without hurting anyone as a relatively harmless show of force, a message came back through the Swiss saying that would be the end of its reprisal for now. The message, forwarded to Washington within five minutes after it was received, persuaded the president to stand down.

When the week ended without the war many feared, Mr. Trump boasted that he had taken out an American enemy. But the struggle between two nations is not really over. Iran may find other ways to take revenge. Iraqi leaders may expel American forces, accomplishing in death what General Suleimani tried and failed to do in life. And in the confusion, a Ukrainian civilian passenger jet was destroyed by an Iranian missile, killing 176 people.

The episode briefly gave Mr. Trump’s allies something to cheer, distracting from the coming Senate impeachment trial, but now he faces questions even among Republicans about the shifting justifications for the strike that he and his national security team have offered. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially cited the need to forestall an “imminent” attack and the president has amplified that to say four American embassies were targeted.

But administration officials said they did not actually know when or where such an attack might occur and one State Department official said it was “a mistake” to use the word “imminent.” And some Pentagon officials were stunned that Mr. Trump picked what they considered a radical option with unforeseen consequences.

This account, based on interviews with dozens of Trump administration officials, military officers, diplomats, intelligence analysts and others in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, offers new details about what may be the most consequential seven days of the Trump presidency.

The confrontation may have actually begun by accident. For years, Iran has sponsored proxy forces in Iraq, competing for influence with American troops who first arrived in the invasion of 2003. Starting last fall, Iranian-backed militias launched rockets at Iraqi bases that house American troops, shattering nerves more than doing much damage.

So when rockets smashed into the K1 military base near Kirkuk on Dec. 27, killing an American civilian contractor, Nawres Waleed Hamid, and injuring several others, the only surprise was the casualties. Kataib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia group held responsible, had fired at least five other rocket attacks on bases with Americans in the previous month without deadly results.

American intelligence officials monitoring communications between Kataib Hezbollah and General Suleimani’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps learned that the Iranians wanted to keep the pressure on the Americans but had not intended to escalate the low-level conflict. The rockets landed in a place and at a time when American and Iraqi personnel normally were not there and it was only by unlucky chance that Mr. Hamid was killed, American officials said.

But that did not matter to Mr. Trump and his team. An American was dead and the president who had called off a retaliatory strike with 10 minutes to go in June and otherwise refrained from military action in response to Iranian provocations now faced a choice.

Advisers told him Iran had probably misinterpreted his previous reluctance to use force as a sign of weakness. To reestablish deterrence, he should authorize a tough response. On holiday at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, the president agreed to strikes on five sites in Iraq and Syria two days later, killing at least 25 members of a pro-Iranian militia and injuring at least 50 more.

Two days later, on Dec. 31, pro-Iranian protesters backed by many members of the same militia responded by breaking into the American Embassy compound in Baghdad and setting fires. Worried about repeats of the 1979 embassy takeover in Iran or the 2012 attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, Mr. Trump and his team ordered more than 100 Marines to rush to Baghdad from Kuwait.

The Marines received little information about their mission or what was happening on the ground as they loaded their magazines with ammunition. All they knew was they were being sent to secure the embassy with one clear order: If protesters entered the compound, kill them.

Some of the Marines made dry jokes about the movie, “Rules of Engagement,” starring Samuel L. Jackson as a commander whose unit fires on a crowd of embassy protesters, stirring an international episode and a court-martial. But when the Marines reached Baghdad, none had to open fire. They used tear gas to disperse protesters and the siege ended without bloodshed.

Westlake Legal Group iraq-embassy-baghdad-airport-attack-1578026455663-articleLarge-v11 Seven Days in January: How the U.S. and Iran Approached the Brink of War United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Suleimani, Qassim Pompeo, Mike Military Bases and Installations Iran Esper, Mark T Drones (Pilotless Planes) Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)

Maps: How the Confrontation Between the U.S. and Iran Escalated

Here’s how the situation developed over the last two weeks.

Still, watching television in Florida, Mr. Trump grew agitated by the chaos and ready to authorize a more robust response. And on Dec. 31, even as the protests were beginning, a top secret memo began circulating, signed by Robert C. O’Brien, his national security adviser and, listing potential targets, including an Iranian energy facility and a command-and-control ship used by the Revolutionary Guards to direct small boats that harass oil tankers in the waters around Iran. The ship had been an irritant to Americans for months, especially after a series of covert attacks on oil tankers.

The memo also listed a more provocative option — targeting specific Iranian officials for death by military strike. Among the targets mentioned, according to officials who saw it, was Abdul Reza Shahlai, an Iranian commander in Yemen who helped finance armed groups across the region.

Another name on the list: General Suleimani.

General Suleimani was hardly a household name in the United States, but as far as American officials were concerned, he was responsible for more instability and death in the Middle East than almost anyone.

As the head of the elite Quds Force, General Suleimani was effectively the second-most powerful man in Iran and had a hand in managing proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, including a campaign of roadside bombs and other attacks that killed an estimated 600 American troops during the height of the Iraq war.

At 62, with a narrow face, gray hair and a close-cropped beard, General Suleimani was known for traveling without body armor or personal protection, collaborating with some of the most ruthless figures in the region while sharing meals with the fighters and telling them to take care of their mothers, according to a Hezbollah field commander who met him in Syria.

After decades of working in the shadows, General Suleimani had emerged in recent years following the Arab Spring and war with the Islamic State as the public figure most associated with Iran’s goal of achieving regional dominance. Photographs surfaced showing him visiting the front lines in Iraq or Syria, meeting with Iran’s supreme leader in Tehran or sitting down with the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. When President Bashar al-Assad of Syria visited Tehran last year, it was General Suleimani who welcomed him.

By the end of 2019, General Suleimani could boast of a number of Iranian accomplishments: Mr. Assad, a longtime Iranian ally, was safely in power in Damascus, Syria’s capital, prevailing in a bloody, multifront, yearslong civil war and the Quds Force had a permanent presence on Israel’s frontier. A number of militias General Suleimani had helped foster were receiving salaries from the Iraqi government and exerting power in Iraq’s political system. And the Islamic State had been defeated in Syria and Iraq thanks, in part, to ground forces he had overseen, one area where he and the United States shared interests.

For the past 18 months, officials said, there had been discussions about whether to target General Suleimani. Figuring that it would be too difficult to hit him in Iran, officials contemplated going after him during one of his frequent visits to Syria or Iraq and focused on developing agents in seven different entities to report on his movements — the Syrian Army, the Quds Force in Damascus, Hezbollah in Damascus, the Damascus and Baghdad airports and the Kataib Hezbollah and Popular Mobilization forces in Iraq.

By the time tensions with Iran spiked in May with attacks on four oil tankers, John R. Bolton, then the president’s national security adviser, asked the military and intelligence agencies to produce new options to deter Iranian aggression. Among those presented to Mr. Bolton was killing General Suleimani and other leaders of the Revolutionary Guards. At that point, work to track General Suleimani’s travels grew more intense.

By September, the United States Central Command and Joint Special Operations Command were brought into the process to plan a possible operation. Various alternatives were discussed, some in Syria, some in Iraq. Syria seemed more complicated, both because the American military had less freedom of movement there and because General Suleimani spent most of his time with Hezbollah officers and officials did not want to bring them into the mix and risk a new war with Israel.

Agents recruited in Syria and Iraq reported from time to time on General Suleimani’s movements, according to an official involved. Surveillance revealed that he flew on a number of airlines and sometimes tickets for a trip were bought on more than one to throw off pursuers. He would be delivered to his plane at the last possible moment, then sit in the front row of business class so he could get off first and depart quickly.

General Suleimani set off on his last trip on New Year’s Day, flying to Damascus and then heading by car to Lebanon to meet with Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, before returning to Damascus that evening. During their meeting, Mr. Nasrallah said in a later speech, he warned General Suleimani that the American news media was focusing on him and publishing his photograph.

“This was media and political preparation for his assassination,” Mr. Nasrallah said.

But as he recalled, General Suleimani laughed, and said that, in fact, he hoped to die a martyr and asked Mr. Nasrallah to pray that he would.

That same day, at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., Gina Haspel was working to fulfill that prayer.

Ms. Haspel, the director, was shown intelligence indicating that General Suleimani was preparing to move from Syria to Iraq. Officials told her there was additional intelligence that he was working on a large-scale attack intended to drive American forces out of the Middle East.

There was no single definitive piece of intelligence. Instead, officials said, C.I.A. officers spoke of the “mosaic effect,” multiple scraps of information that came together indicating that General Suleimani was organizing proxy forces around the region, including in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, to attack American embassies and bases. Several officials said they did not have enough concrete information to describe such a threat as “imminent,” despite Mr. Pompeo’s assertion, but they did see a worrying pattern.

While Mr. Pompeo also claimed later that such an attack could kill “hundreds,” other officials said they had no specific intelligence suggesting that. Most American facilities in the region have been heavily fortified for years and such an immense death toll would be unlikely; at no point in the last two decades, even during the worst of the Iraq war, have any hostile forces been able to pull off such a deadly assault on Americans at once.

Nonetheless, Ms. Haspel was convinced there was evidence of a coming attack and argued the consequences of not striking General Suleimani were more dangerous than waiting, officials said. While others worried about reprisals, she reassured colleagues that Iran’s response would be measured. Indeed, she predicted the most likely response would be an ineffectual missile strike from Iran on Iraqi bases where American troops were stationed.

“If past is prologue, we have learned that when we enforce a red line with Iran, when Iran gets rapped on the knuckles, they tactically retreat,” said Dan Hoffman, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Iraq. “The retreat might be ephemeral before Iran probes its enemies with more gradually escalating attacks, but we’ve seen it repeatedly.”

There was little dissent about killing General Suleimani among Mr. Trump’s senior advisers, but some Pentagon officials were shocked that the president picked what they considered the most extreme option and some intelligence officials worried that the possible long-term ramifications were not adequately considered, particularly if action on Iraqi soil prompted Iraq to expel American forces.

“The whole thing seems haphazard to me,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior C.I.A. official who retired last year.

The Trump administration has said that General Suleimani was going to Baghdad as part of the attack plot, but there are different theories about the purpose of his visit.

General Suleimani had long played a role as power broker in Iraqi politics, and two Iraqi politicians with links to Iran said he was coming to Baghdad to help break an impasse over replacing the prime minister after the collapse of the government in November in the face of anti-Iran protests.

But Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, still serving as a caretaker until a new government is formed, told Parliament after the drone strike that General Suleimani had another goal — to bring an Iranian response to a Saudi offer to reduce tensions. The shadow conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia had been heating up. After Iranian forces were blamed for an attack on two Saudi oil facilities in September and Mr. Trump opted against a military response, Saudi officials worried that they were vulnerable and opened a back channel.

In his speech to Parliament, Mr. Abdul Mahdi said he had planned to meet with General Suleimani a few hours after his arrival in Baghdad. “It was expected that he was carrying a message for me from the Iranian side responding to the Saudi message that we had sent to the Iranian side to reach agreements and breakthroughs,” Mr. Abdul Mahdi said.

A Saudi official said he was unaware of any message carried by General Suleimani and some analysts doubted Mr. Abdul Mahdi’s account. “That is laughable,” said Mohammed Alyahya, the editor in chief of Al Arabiya English, a Saudi news site. “Suddenly, this man is a diplomat extraordinaire one day before he died?”

Another theory, advanced by an intelligence official involved in the operation, held that General Suleimani was visiting Iraq to quash anti-Iranian protests by having his Shia militia break them up by force. He hoped to install a new anti-American government that might even throw out United States forces.

Whatever his goals, they died with him in the mangled wreckage at Baghdad’s airport. Altogether, 10 people were killed — General Suleimani, Mr. al-Muhandis and their aides. Mr. al-Muhandis had helped found Kataib Hezbollah, the militia held responsible for the Dec. 27 rocket attack that killed the American contractor.

The New York Times

But another Iranian commander escaped. The same night General Suleimani died, American forces tried to kill Mr. Shahlai, the Quds Force commander in Yemen mentioned in Mr. O’Brien’s memo. Still, the attack failed because of an undisclosed problem with the intelligence.

Iran braced for more. “There was a state of mobilization to get ready in case that was the first stage in a wider plan,” said Mohammed Obeid, a Lebanese political activist with ties to Iran’s “resistance axis” in the region. “There could have been other steps that the Americans or the Israelis would take, broadening the circle of confrontation.”

Mr. Trump planned to play golf the next morning, Jan. 4, but advisers concluded it would send the wrong message as General Suleimani’s death stirred unrest around the Middle East and raised the prospect of a wider conflict with Iran.

The president was initially upbeat, expecting the operation to be greeted with applause much like the raid in October that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. Indeed, Mr. Trump opened his first statement to reporters on the mission that Friday by describing General Suleimani as the “No. 1 terrorist anywhere in the world,” much as he had opened his statement a couple of months ago calling Mr. al-Baghdadi the “world’s No. 1 terrorist leader.”

But as the president watched television over the weekend, he grew angry that critics were accusing him of reckless escalation. He sought validation from guests at his Florida clubs, recounting details of the Baghdad Embassy protests and drinking in their praise for his decisiveness. He told some associates that he wanted to preserve the support of Republican hawks in the Senate in the coming impeachment trial, naming Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas as an example, even though they had not spoken about Iran since before Christmas.

While Mr. Trump tipped off another hawk, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who was visiting in Florida, his administration gave no advance warning to its European allies or Persian Gulf partners in advance of the strike. The only foreign leader who appeared in the know was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who had spoken with Mr. Pompeo before the attack and later offered a cryptic public hint hours before it took place.

“We know that our region is stormy; very, very dramatic things are happening in it,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters, unprompted, on the tarmac in Tel Aviv before departing for a visit to Athens. He went on to offer support for the United States “and to its full right to defend itself and its citizens.”

Israeli leaders were later pleased by the death of General Suleimani, one of their deadliest enemies, but remained silent lest they provoke retaliation, even as shelter supplies were checked and a ski resort near the Syrian frontier was briefly closed.

Yet some figured that if Hezbollah were to attack Israel on Iran’s behalf, it might be better to have that battle now. “This camp believes that there will be such a clash anyway and the best timing is before the U.S. elections — and that Israel may lose this president in the White House,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

In Riyadh, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was unsettled. Despite his hawkish approach to Iran, he has been recently accepting offers from Pakistanis, Omanis, Iraqis and others to mediate. Now, he immediately dispatched his younger brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the deputy defense minister, on an emergency mission to the White House.

The Saudi view was “hitting Suleimani is great, but what is the plan?” said Sir John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Riyadh. “If there is a plan, we are down with it. If not, we all have to de-escalate.”

Prince Khalid was pleased by whatever Mr. Trump told him, telling diplomats afterward that the royal family was glad the president had dealt Iran a serious blow — and relieved that he did not seem inclined to escalate further.

But many were not sure. Mr. Trump issued bellicose threats to destroy Iran if it retaliated, including cultural treasures in violation of international law, touching off international outrage and forcing his own defense secretary to publicly disavow the threat, saying it would be a war crime.

Mr. Trump was largely alone on the world stage. No major European power, not even Britain, voiced support for the drone strike, even as leaders agreed that General Suleimani had blood on his hands. As Le Monde, the French newspaper, put it, the rift signaled “a new stage in the trans-Atlantic divorce over the Middle East.”

Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran has been a major point of contention. European leaders deeply resented the unilateral pullout, seeing that as a grave error that started a cycle of sanctions and recriminations that led to the seven-day showdown and now the restart of the Iranian nuclear program.

When Mr. Pompeo phoned his European counterparts after the strike, they expressed concern. In a 15-minute call, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany said the killing had not made it any easier to stabilize the region. Mr. Pompeo responded that the situation was now more stable.

The French and Japanese both offered to serve as mediators, but that only annoyed Mr. Trump, who dislikes middlemen. So the Europeans focused on keeping Tehran from overreacting.

Video

transcript

Video Shows Aftermath of U.S. Strike That Killed Top Iran Commander

President Trump authorized the attack early Friday at Baghdad International Airport that killed Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.

Suleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. But we caught him in the act. We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

Westlake Legal Group merlin_166605342_bb1d07c1-25be-4a96-8815-857e98b24a47-videoSixteenByNine3000 Seven Days in January: How the U.S. and Iran Approached the Brink of War United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Suleimani, Qassim Pompeo, Mike Military Bases and Installations Iran Esper, Mark T Drones (Pilotless Planes) Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Baghdad International Airport (Iraq)

President Trump authorized the attack early Friday at Baghdad International Airport that killed Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.CreditCredit…Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg News

A senior German diplomat sent a text message to his Iranian counterpart urging calm. He got back a terse, though polite, message. In a series of phone calls, European officials tried to give the Iranians a sense that it was not them against the rest of the world but that in fact there was a global public beyond the United States, according to one European diplomat.

President Emmanuel Macron of France played an active role, reaching out to both sides. “Macron’s specificity is that he does not approve, but he also does not condemn,” said Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria.

Mr. Macron reached Mr. Trump on Sunday and emphasized the need for de-escalation. Mr. Trump suggested he was still open to diplomacy. All the Iranians had to do was come to him and they could make a deal, Mr. Trump said, according to a senior French official.

Two days later, Mr. Macron spoke with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and reminded him that he had “missed a chance in September” to talk directly with Mr. Trump in a phone call Mr. Macron tried to arrange on the sidelines of the annual United Nations session.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany spoke with Mr. Trump, too, and expressed concern for Iraq’s stability if allied troops withdrew. If the United States stayed, she said, Germany would also. Mr. Trump joked that Germany was welcome to lead the international force and replace the Americans. Ms. Merkel laughed.

The most important European country in these seven days, it turned out, was Switzerland, which has served as the intermediary between the United States and Iran since they broke off diplomatic relations in 1980.

Hours after the strike, Markus Leitner, the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, headed to the Iranian Foreign Ministry for the first of two visits that day, according to a Swiss analyst. The Americans had sent a letter to the Iranians through the Swiss warning against any retaliation for the drone strike that would incite further military action by Mr. Trump.

The Americans “said that if you want to get revenge, get revenge in proportion to what we did,” Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, told Iranian state television.

American officials disputed that characterization and analysts doubted it was that explicit, although that could be how Tehran interpreted it. In any case, Mr. Leitner went back to the Foreign Ministry at day’s end for the Iranian response.

Unbeknown to the Iranians, Mr. Trump had agreed to targeting the other sites originally considered — the oil and gas facility and the command-in-control ship — as part of any further retaliation that might be necessary if Iran responded to the drone strike. Despite Mr. Trump’s threat, none of the targets on the list were actually cultural, an official said; that was just presidential bluster, aggravated by an instinct to double down in the face of criticism.

On Tuesday, the Defense Special Missile and Astronautics Center, part of the National Security Agency, pulled together multiple strands of information, including overhead imagery and communication intercepts, to conclude that an Iranian missile strike on Iraqi bases was coming, officials said. The center sent the warning to the White House.

Vice President Mike Pence and Mr. O’Brien immediately headed to the Situation Room in the basement, joined later by the president and Mr. Pompeo. At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by its chairman, Gen. Mark A. Milley, convened in a third-floor conference room and discussed how to move troops and families in the region to safer locations.

Just after 5:30 p.m., an almost robotic voice came over a speakerphone in the Situation Room. “Sir, we have indications of a launch at 22:30 Zulu Time from western Iran in the direction of Iraq, Syria and Jordan.” Reports began coming in faster. The missiles were staggered but most were streaking toward Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, home to 2,000 American troops.

The barrage ended after an hour but base commanders ordered troops to remain in shelter in case more missiles came. Around 7:30, about an hour after the strikes concluded, Mr. Esper and General Milley headed to the White House to meet with Mr. Trump.

The missiles damaged a helicopter, some tents and other structures but, thanks to the advance warning, inflicted no casualties. And through the Swiss came another message: That was it. That was their retribution.

The Americans were struck by the speed of the communication — it was shown to Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo within five minutes after the Swiss received it from Tehran. They passed the message by encrypted fax to Brian H. Hook, the special representative on Iran in Washington, two minutes after the Iranians gave it to them.

Mr. Esper, a veteran of the Persian Gulf war of 1991, counseled caution. “Let’s stay calm,” he said. “The ball is in our court. There’s no rush to do anything. Let’s all sleep on it.”

By the time Mr. Trump retired to the residence for the night, advisers said, he was relieved there had been no casualties and eager for a reset, a path away from a deeper conflict. He posted a reassuring tweet: “All is well!”

The next morning Mr. Trump addressed the nation from the White House, and while he excoriated Iran’s “campaign of terror,” he made clear he would not retaliate further.

“Iran appears to be standing down,” he said, without revealing the secret message sent through the Swiss, adding that he was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

The immediate crisis over, Mr. Trump sent top officials to brief Congress, but the closed-door sessions in a secure facility where lawmakers had to surrender their telephones did little to quell concerns about the justification for the drone strike.

In the House briefing, Mr. Pompeo offered a brief introduction followed by presentations by Ms. Haspel, Mr. Esper, General Milley and Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. All three offered vague but emphatic assertions of intelligence indicating an imminent threat by General Suleimani. General Milley said the evidence could not be clearer and was the “best intelligence” he had seen during his career.

But they refused to describe it in detail. One lawmaker said the information was no more secret than what could be found on Wikipedia. At one point, General Milley said the intelligence showed discussion by General Suleimani of potential terrorist attacks on three specific dates in late December or early January.

“What were the threats?” several lawmakers in the audience shouted, but General Milley declined to say.

Another lawmaker noted that the three dates General Milley cited were all before the strike on General Suleimani and no attacks actually occurred then.

“What really came across was a sense of disdain and contempt for the legislative branch,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia. “They didn’t even pretend to be engaged in information sharing and consultation.”

Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, called the session for senators “probably the worst briefing” in his nine years in office. “We never got to the details,” he said. “Every time we got close, they said, ‘Well, we can’t discuss that here because it’s sensitive.’”

If it was too sensitive for Congress, it was not too sensitive for Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host. In an interview broadcast on Friday, Mr. Trump told her that the threat had been to four American embassies, even as other officials said privately that they did not have concrete evidence of General Suleimani’s targets.

After seven days of saber rattling and fresh deployments, the immediate march to war had ended. But inside the security establishment, few consider the crisis to be over. In the months to come, they expect Iran to regroup and find ways to strike back.

“Suleimani as a person inspired the masses, he was a national icon, he symbolized the struggle,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who studies Iran. “But he was also a very small part of a very large organization.”

“Yes, it is decapitated,” he added, “but the organization is not destroyed.”

Peter Baker and Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, David D. Kirkpatrick from London, and Alissa J. Rubin from Baghdad. Reporting was contributed by Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Lara Jakes, Mark Mazzetti, David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Michael D. Shear, Noah Weiland and Edward Wong from Washington; Rukmini Callimachi; Maggie Haberman and Farnaz Fassihi from New York; Adam Nossiter and Constant Méheut from Paris; Steven Erlanger from Brussels; Katrin Bennhold from Berlin; Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva; David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem; Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad from Beirut; and Falih Hassan from Baghdad.

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