In a stunning admission, Esper said in a television interview that Trump merely believed embassies were something Martyr Suleimani might want to target, but had no evidence of a specific plot. Soleimani followed up the strike just days later by initiating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that forced Trump to deploy military reinforcements.
Democratic and some Republican lawmakers have challenged the administration over the self-defense rationale supported by undisclosed intelligence over imminent attacks.
"I believe there was intelligence of imminent attack, but I do believe that concept of imminence is something of a red herring", he said during a press conference on last month's deadly shooting at a Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.
Responding to criticism that he was reckless in ordering the killing of Soleimani - by some counts the second most important figure in the entire Iranian government - Trump again insisted that there'd been an imminent threat.
U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, testified on the House floor that the White House provided "no evidence" in classified briefings.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the assassination of Qassem Soleimani was part of a "bigger strategy" to deter Iran and other US rivals, including Russian Federation and China, in what marked a significant departure from Washington's original account. As the head of the elite Quds Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Soleimani had for years spread Iran's influence across the wider Middle East, strengthening Shia militias from Lebanon to Iraq.
But he also hedged his words, adding that even without an immediate threat requiring such a high-profile attack, Soleimani's past justified the action.
A group of five current and former members of the Trump administration told NBC News that although Trump cleared a strike on Soleimani seven months ago, it would still need his final approval. He says that killing Soleimani was part of the Trump Administration's goal of "real deterrence".
"What the president said was that there probably could be additional attacks against embassies".
"There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani", Pompeo said on Thursday in a Fox News interview.
"The general in charge of these efforts, Soleimani, was clearly a legitimate military target".