White House memo on Soleimani strike and imminent threat

Research/Study Research/Study

Cable news ignores White House memo contradicting Trump's justifications for Soleimani strike

  • Cable news networks have virtually ignored a White House memo to Congress outlining its justification for the extrajudicial killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which included no mention of an “imminent threat” that the Trump administration officials had cited shortly after the strike.

    In the days after the January 2 strike, administration officials provided an evolving rationale for the killing. The Pentagon initially cited deterrence of “future Iranian attack plans” as justification. The next day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pivoted the administration’s position by saying that the decision to kill Soleimani was “in response to imminent threats to American lives.” That same day, President Donald Trump claimed that his administration had “caught [Soleimani] in the act” as he “was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.”

    At the time, mainstream news outlets uncritically reported in headlines the administration’s claims of “imminent threats.” Meanwhile, Fox News’ Fox & Friends hosts urged their viewers to simply “trust” the president on this one, and television pundits repeatedly asserted that they had no reason to doubt the administration’s justification for the strike.

    However, a February 14 memo to Congress stated that the administration carried out the strike in response to past attacks and to deter future ones but made no mention of an imminent threat that Soleimani posed. As the The New York Times noted, the report “contradicted the original justification the administration provided.”

    Media Matters searched cable news transcripts from February 14 through 23 for mentions of the memo and found only a single news brief on CNN’s Inside Politics that aired February 14. Essentially, following significant coverage of the administration’s claim that the strike was based on an imminent attack, when that claim turned out to be seemingly fabricated, it went almost entirely unnoted on cable news.

  • Video file
  • Soleimani’s killing had significant consequences. Days after the attack, Iran responded with a strike of “more than a dozen ballistic missiles” against “military bases in Ain al-Assad, northwest of Baghdad, and in Irbil, in the semiautonomous Kurdish region.” While Trump initially stated during a January 8 address at the White House that U.S. military personnel “suffered no casualties” and that “all of our soldiers are safe,” subsequent reporting has revealed that more than 100 U.S. troops have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. An NBC News investigation has also determined that “the U.S. and Iran were closer to war than was generally understood.”

    Despite the shifting stories, cable news has been virtually silent on the administration's abandonment of its “imminent threat” justification for a strike that brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for mentions of any of the terms “threat,” “memo” or “strike” within close proximity of any of the terms “Soleimani” or “Iran” from February 14 through February 23, 2020.