Days after the United States military strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the rounds, but the hosts of the five major Sunday news shows fell short in questioning and pushing Pompeo in two major ways. As Pompeo seemingly pivoted away from the claim that Soleimani presented an imminent threat to the U.S., the hosts failed to press him on the exact nature of intelligence the administration claimed to have. Pompeo was also not challenged when he consistently blamed the Obama administration and specifically the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for actions that Iran has taken since President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement.
Pompeo's interviews on Sunday
Following a report that the administration had misled Americans about an imminent threat, Pompeo pivoted away from that claim and even appeared to cite secret intelligence that only senior administration officials saw. He was not pressed on that.
On January 2, the Pentagon put out a statement claiming Soleimani was “actively developing plans” to attack the United States and the following day, the Trump administration said the fatal strike was necessary due to Soleimani’s alleged “imminent” threat against the U.S. The claim fell apart when New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi revealed in a January 4 tweet thread that her sources had said the intelligence evidence of an imminent attack was “razor thin.” According to Callimachi, one U.S. official called “the reading of the intelligence as an illogical leap.”
Pentagon officials were reportedly “stunned” when Trump made the call. As the New York Times reported, “Some officials voiced private skepticism about the rationale for a strike on General Suleimani, who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over the years. According to one United States official, the new intelligence indicated ‘a normal Monday in the Middle East’ — Dec. 30 — and General Suleimani’s travels amounted to ‘business as usual.’” In fact, “that official described the intelligence as thin and said that General Suleimani’s attack was not imminent” because Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had not approved any operation.
When discussing the need and justification for the strike on Face the Nation, CBS’ Margaret Brennan did not challenge Pompeo’s premise that there was an imminent threat that warranted Soleimani’s killing. Instead, she questioned Pompeo whether killing Soleimani would “take out the specific plot that you say was an imminent threat.” She did not bring up Callimachi’s reporting about the evidence being “razor thin.” Instead, she let Pompeo merely state that “there are constant threats” and “we’ll continue to take action to respond” and didn’t push back.
Similarly, during Pompeo’s interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, while host Chuck Todd repeatedly asked him to explain what made the threat imminent, he made no mention of sources who called the evidence “thin” and reported disagreements within the administration about the significance of the intelligence.
During Fox News Sunday, CNN’s State of the Union, and ABC’s This Week, the hosts all mentioned reports that some who saw the evidence -- either members of Congress or Callimachi’s sources -- had concluded it did not culminate in an “imminent threat.” But when pressed about these reports on This Week and Fox News Sunday, Pompeo suggested that there was additional, secretive intelligence that existed to support the administration’s claims of an imminent threat, and none of the hosts pushed back on his claims. For instance, when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos questioned Pompeo about Callimachi’s reporting, Pompeo simply said that among the “senior leaders who had access to all of the intelligence, there was no skepticism,” implying there was intelligence that supported his case that hadn’t been shared. Pompeo made a similar assertion on Fox News Sunday, saying, “Any reasonable person who saw the intelligence that the senior American leaders had in their possession would have come to the same conclusion” as Trump. Neither Stephanopoulos nor Wallace followed up on what Pompeo meant by these statements or questioned why this supposed intelligence was being withheld from key members of Congress and intelligence officials.
Hosts failed to press Pompeo on claim that President Barack Obama’s nuclear Deal and “appeasement” of Iran made the strike necessary.
All five hosts similarly offered little to no push back when Pompeo said that the strike was necessary because of the Obama administration’s “appeasement” of the Iranian regime. Pompeo specifically blamed the 2015 JCPOA, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, which he told Wallace “essentially handed power to the Iranian leadership.”
Trump has long been a vocal critic of the nuclear deal, repeatedly threatening to withdraw from the agreement despite reports that in 2017, “all” of his “major security advisers recommended he preserve” the deal. Just a month before Trump officially withdrew from the deal in 2018, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the agreement was “robust” with aspects “that can be improved on.” Trump’s decision “drew a chorus of opposition from European leaders, several of whom lobbied him feverishly not to pull out of the agreement and searched for fixes to it that would satisfy him.” What followed withdrawal from the agreement was steadily escalating tension -- the U.S. putting an embargo on Iranian oil, Iran shooting down an American drone, Iran-backed militias striking at U.S. bases that ultimately killed an American contractor, and U.S. retaliating with strikes that killed dozens of Iraqi and Syrian militia members.
But when Pompeo presented the Obama administration's dealings with Iran as having emboldened Iran which ultimately led to the present circumstances, hosts of Meet the Press, This Week, Face the Nation, and Fox News Sunday failed to push back on his claim despite the mountain of evidence showing there were more tension following the U.S. unilaterally withdrawing from the nuclear deal. In fact, no host seems to have mentioned that nearly all thee examples cited by Pompeo to justify the strike occurred subsequent to Trump withdrawing from the deal.
Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace and This Week’s Stephanopoulos did ask if Trump’s strategy toward Iran was successful. But Pompeo again faced no pushback when he claimed the Trump administration’s strategy was to “correct” Obama’s “appeasement” of Iran, that the nuclear deal would “permit arms trade with Iran” and that the “Obama-Biden administration essentially handed power to the Iranian leadership and acted as a quasi-ally.” (Stephanopoulos earlier had said that the Iranians were abiding by the agreement before Trump withdrew from the deal, but he didn’t confront Pompeo’s mischaracterization.) Face the Nation host Brennan didn’t acknowledge Pompeo’s assertion that the Obama administration appeased Iran, and CNN’s Jake Tapper ignored it altogether when Pompeo said that “this war kicked off when the JCPOA was entered into.”
Bartiromo's interview with Pompeo was particularly bad
In addition to the five main Sunday shows, Pompeo also did a brief interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox News. While Pompeo on other shows danced around Trump's tweet promising to target Iranian cultural sites by promising that any action would be lawful, on Fox News Pompeo instead denied that Trump wanted to target cultural sites at all, even though that is exactly what Trump published.
The interview wrapped up with Bartiromo touting a potential strike of oil facilities, echoing something that Fox host Sean Hannity said on Friday.