By Steve Holland
TOLEDO, Ohio (Reuters) – President Donald Trump made the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani a theme of his re-election campaign on Thursday, drawing cheers from thousands at a rally when he said the death saved lives and delivered “American justice.”
At the campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, Trump spent a lengthy part of his stump speech defending his order to kill Soleimani and rejecting criticism from Democrats who say he overstepped his authority with the U.S. military’s drone strike against the commander of Iran’s military Quds force at Baghdad’s airport a week ago.
He accused Soleimani of organizing violent protests by Iran-backed groups at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this month. Trump, who frequently trumpets his support of the U.S. military, said if he had not sent U.S. troops to protect the embassy the demonstrators might have broken in and killed Americans or taken them hostage, a repeat of the 2011 storming of a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador was killed.
“Last week the United States once again took the bold and decisive action to save American lives and deliver American justice,” he said.
Trump’s appearance at the arena in Toledo was his first campaign rally of the 2020 election year, a sign of how critical the state is to his winning a second four-year term in office next November. Trump won Ohio in 2016 by 8 percentage points, flipping a state that had gone for Democrat Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
Trump and his top advisers have said Soleimani was masterminding “imminent” attacks against American targets in the Middle East, but have drawn criticism for not providing more detail to back up the claim.
“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad, but we stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold,” Trump said.
Trump placed Soleimani’s death a week ago as part of his tough-on-militants message and an example of what he said was a stronger military under his watch.
Soleimani’s death prompted an Iranian retaliatory missile strike on Tuesday night against two U.S. bases in Iraq. Trump said he had been ready to launch retaliatory strikes until he was told that no American casualties had resulted.
“They hit us with 16 missiles and I said: ‘How many?’ We were ready to go. We were ready to go. I said, ‘How many?’ How many died? How many were wounded? ‘Sir, none.’ None. Pretty good warning system. None. ‘How many were hurt?’ ‘None, sir,'” he said.
“So we didn’t do anything. We were ready. We were ready. Not that I wanted to. But we were ready. You have no idea. A lot of people got very lucky,” he said.
While tensions remain, a broad war between the United States and Iran has not erupted and Democrats are battling to rein in Trump’s ability to launch a new conflict in the Middle East.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday passed a resolution to stop Trump from further military action against Iran.
Trump mocked Democrats who felt more information was needed on the imminent danger Soleimani posed. He said he had to make a “split-section” decision and Democratic leaders would have dragged out the process and leaked to the U.S. news media if he had given them a heads-up before the operation.
“He was a bad guy. He was a blood-thirsty terror, and he’s no longer a terror, he’s dead. And yet now I see the radical-left Democrats have expressed outrage over the termination of this horrible terrorist,” said Trump.
(Reporting by Steve Holland in Toledo, Ohio; Additional reporting by Eric Beech, Makini Brice and Mohammad Zargham in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler)