President Trump on Friday defended his order to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, saying he authorized the strike in Iraq “to stop a war” and that the top Iranian commander should have been targeted and killed “long ago.”
“What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved,” Trump said in a brief address from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”
“Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” the president added, describing the action as a “flawless, precision strike.”
NEW: Pres. Trump on U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian commander: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” https://t.co/r0uf4IsxdF pic.twitter.com/jzW7n5WSLX
— ABC News (@ABC) January 3, 2020
Trump’s statement, which lasted a few minutes and concluded without him taking questions, represented his first public remarks on the strike late Thursday. The address appeared to have been quickly scheduled, as it was not previously announced by the White House.
The Pentagon confirmed Thursday night that Trump ordered a strike against Soleimani, who commanded Iran’s Quds Force, describing it as a defensive operation meant to deter future Iranian attacks that the top general was actively planning.
Officials say Soleimani has been responsible for the death of hundreds of U.S. troops in the Middle East over the years.
Trump emphasized Friday that his administration does not “seek regime change” in Iran but he called on Tehran to stop its destabilizing activity in the region, including its use of proxies across the Middle East.
“I have deep respect for the Iranian people. They are a remarkable people with an incredible heritage and unlimited potential. We do not seek regime change; however the Iranian regime’s aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors, must end and it must end now.”
Trump also appeared to threaten further action if Iran targets Americans around the globe in retaliation for the strike on Soleimani.
“The United States has the best military, by far, anywhere in the world. We have the best intelligence in the world,” Trump said. “If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary.”
“That in particular refers to Iran,” the president added.
Trump’s decision to authorize the strike represents a major escalation in the administration’s confrontation with Tehran and it has triggered concerns from critics about destabilizing consequences.
Democrats have accused Trump of not seeking proper approval from Congress for the strike, while Republicans have largely rallied around the move.
Iran swiftly vowed a harsh response for the killing of the top military leader, though it remains unclear what shape such an action will take or when it will occur.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier Friday that there was an “imminent threat to American lives” without providing specific details, saying the strike saved U.S. personnel. Pompeo has also held numerous calls with foreign counterparts to brief them on the strike, emphasizing the U.S. commitment to de-escalation, according to the State Department.
Trump spoke to reporters Friday afternoon before departing for a campaign event with evangelical supporters in Miami.