Obama DHS Sec. Jeh Johnson: Trump Had Constitutional and Domestic Legal Authority to Take Out Soleimani

Former Obama Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson spoke approvingly on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday about President Trump’s authorization of a deadly U.S. drone-fired missile attack against Iran Quds Force leader Major General Qassem Soleimani as he arrived at the Baghdad airport early Friday morning. Johnson, who also served as former general counsel for the Pentagon, was interviewed by Chuck Todd.

Johnson said, “If you believe everything that our government is saying about General Soleimani, he was a lawful military objective, and the president, under his constitutional authority as commander in chief, had ample domestic legal authority to take him out without an additional congressional authorization. Whether he was a terrorist or a general in a military force that was engaged in armed attacks against our people, he was a lawful military objective.”

A video clip was posted by the Trump campaign, as the rest of the media has so far ignored Johnson’s comments on Meet the Press.

Transcript via Meet the Press:

CHUCK TODD:

Jeh, before you were Homeland Security Secretary, you were counselor at the Defense Department.

JEH JOHNSON:

Correct.

CHUCK TODD:

So explain for viewers, why does Mike Pompeo keep saying terrorist? There is a legal reason he keeps saying the word terrorist, isn’t there?

JEH JOHNSON:

No, not necessarily. If you believe everything that our government is saying about General Soleimani, he was a lawful military objective, and the president, under his constitutional authority as commander in chief, had ample domestic legal authority to take him out without an additional congressional authorization. Whether he was a terrorist or a general in a military force that was engaged in armed attacks against our people, he was a lawful military objective. But that’s not the only question here. For a very long time, the Bush administration, the Obama administration, had been engaged in what we refer to now as shadow warfare with the Iranian government. And last Thursday night was what we refer to as a decapitation strike, where we’ve taken out a very high profile member of the Iranian government. That is a provocative, in your face act, where you kill a senior member of the Iranian government and you say, “Yes, I did it.” And I hope that this administration has carefully considered the second and third order of effects of that one very plain second order effect, which any foreign officer could predict is the reaction in Iraq. With the growing Shia political influence in that country —

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

JEH JOHNSON:

— we face the very real prospect that the Iraqi government will want us out of that country.

Johnson also spoke about a new DHS advisory:

CHUCK TODD: Well, we know what happened the last time. Jeh Johnson, very quickly, your former department put out a very alarming alert last night.

JEH JOHNSON: It was very candid.

CHUCK TODD: Very candid. The Iranians ability to cyber-attack us, could they — could they temporarily cripple cities?

JEH JOHNSON: We have to prepare for that very distinct possibility. The National Threat Advisory put out last night said that the Iranian government could strike with little or no notice, on a moment’s notice, and that Hezbollah has demonstrated the capability and intent to strike the homeland. That’s a very candid statement.

Johnson made similar comments about the President’s lawful authority to strike Soleiman (apparently off camera) to CBS Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan who quoted him in an interview Sunday morning with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT):

SEN. MURPHY: Well, I don’t know any other way to describe it. This was the intentional execution of a high level official in a sovereign nation. Qassem Soleimani is an evil man. He has absolutely ordered the murder of hundreds of Americans. But he is a high level representative of a foreign government, a foreign government with a military that could- that could strike at American civilians and American service people. The question is, why didn’t the administration look at other means to try to stop this attack from happening? Reporting suggests that his own military leaders were shocked that the president chose an assassination versus more targeted strikes against other Iranian or Iranian proxy assets in the region.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. Which is why I thought it was notable when the secretary said that all cabinet members had agreed and top national security advisers. I want to ask you, because you- you’ve been critical of whether this was legal for the president to do this and specifically this authorization of military force debate. I spoke with the former Obama administration, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson. I’m sure you know him.

SEN. MURPHY: Yeah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: He used to be general counsel at the Pentagon. And he said this: “Direct engagement of a senior military official of another nation’s harder to justify under the AUMF,” which is your part of your argument. “But having said that, under existing Office of Legal Counsel opinions, it’s plain the president had constitutional authority to use lethal force against General Soleimani as vital national interests were implicated. Therefore, no congressional authorization was required.” That’s the former Pentagon lawyer, a Democrat. Why is he wrong?

SEN. MURPHY: So in this case, the president has the burden of explaining to the American public and to Congress why the strike against Qassem Soleimani was necessary to prevent future attacks against the United States. There is a general understanding that to prevent future attacks, imminent attacks, you can take action without Congress. The contention here is that by assassinating a high level Iranian official, that you are actually going to inspire and create more attacks against the United States not actually prevent those attacks. And so that–

MARGARET BRENNAN: But so they could argue though that–

SEN. MURPHY: –that’s the burden of proof that he has…

Johnson served as secretary of Homeland Security from December 2013 to January 2017, appointed by President Obama, who had previously appointed Johnson to be General Counsel for the Department of Defense where he served from February 2009 to December 2012.


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