Opinion: After Soleimani, who can’t President Trump kill?
Assassination is an ugly word.
It’s an even uglier thing to do.
Webster’s says it’s “murder by sudden or secret attack, often for political reasons.”
President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. John F. Kennedy was assassinated. People tried, unsuccessfully, to kill Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
In each of these instances, the assassins and would-be assassins were treated as pariahs, not heroes.
It’s been a month since Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani was ordered killed by President Donald Trump, who keeps insisting he be treated as a hero for this dubious deed – which almost ignited a full-fledged war between Iran and the United States.
“He should’ve been killed 20 years ago,” Trump smugly boasted to supporters at a recent campaign rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
On Trump’s orders, a U.S. drone fired rockets at Soleimani’s convoy as he was leaving the Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.
Was Soleimani’s killing an assassination? An act of war? Preemptive self-defense? Or just plain murder?
I pose these questions not because I lament Soleimani’s death. While I don’t celebrate anyone’s killing, I get that Soleimani was a bad man.
As head of Iran’s Quds Force, U.S. intelligence and defense officials say Iran under Soleimani’s direction had for decades backed militia and terrorist organizations across the Middle East, including some responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers.
To justify the assassination, Trump first claimed Soleimani had to be killed because he was plotting an unspecified “imminent” attack against the United States. But over the next couple of weeks, Trump couldn’t keep his story straight. At one point, he said the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was facing imminent attack. He later said Soleimani was planning to target as many as four American embassies.
Pressed on the subject, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper eventually admitted on “Face the Nation” that he (the guy in charge of ordering missiles fired at our enemies) had seen no specific intelligence that U.S. embassies were targeted by Soleimani. A White House source later told The Daily Beast that staffers think Trump made up the story.
Apparently caught in the latest of more than 15,000 “false or misleading statements” – some of us think of them as lies – Trump then blurted out via Twitter that “it doesn’t really matter” if there was an imminent threat “because of [Soleimani’s] horrible past.”
Admittedly, Soleimani’s killing isn’t generating the sort of headlines or public debate it might otherwise do because the president, as it happens, is on trial in the U.S. Senate.
Since the Republicans who control the Senate are about as likely to convict and expel Trump as they are to ban Christmas, we’re likely stuck with a president who may have broken the law, again, and this time with deadly consequences.
You see, assassination is illegal, even when the president does it, according to Vicki Divoll, former assistant general counsel at the Central Intelligence Agency. She says that while a president may not be barred from ordering the assassination of foreign leaders under existing executive orders designed to address the issue, such killings are considered murder under the U.S. Criminal Code.
“On its face,” Divoll writes that President Trump’s “conduct and intent” regarding Soleimani’s killing “satisfy the elements of premeditated murder under Section 1116 of Title 18 of the United States Criminal Code, ‘Murder or manslaughter of foreign officials, official guests, or internationally protected persons.’”
In short, Divoll thinks Trump could be prosecuted on murder charges after he leaves office. A Justice Department rule prohibits the criminal prosecution of a sitting U.S. president.
Trump’s lawyers may agree with her. Last year, they argued in federal court that because Trump is the president (and I’m not making this up) he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, but he could not be prosecuted by New York authorities until he’s out of office.
Trump, meanwhile, has claimed that “Article II” of the Constitution, says, “I can do whatever I want” as president.
Bottom line? Soleimani was a despicable human being. But so is President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose actions in that country’s civil war have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, including rebel troops allied with the U.S. So, should Trump be allowed to order al-Assad’s assassination?
What about President Kim Jong Un of North Korea? He’s developing nuclear weapons and keeps firing missiles over Japan, a key American ally in the region. Should Trump kill him today to keep him from developing nuclear-tipped missiles?
The still unsettled debate over whether Trump was justified in killing Soleimani has me wondering: Is there anyone Trump, at least while he’s president, can’t kill with impunity?
Foreign leaders? Domestic political opponents? Personal enemies?
Editor’s note: This column was originally published on azmirror.com.