WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on Sunday that he never saw any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as President Trump had claimed last week as a justification for the strike on an Iranian general that sent the United States and Iran to the brink of war.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “I share the president’s view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
The muddled message on Sunday by Mr. Esper and other administration officials only added to the public debate over the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general, Qassim Suleimani, and whether there was appropriate justification for the killing. The administration has offered shifting rationales for the strike, first indicating that it was a response to an “imminent” threat and then backing away from that idea, before sporadically reclaiming it.
As critics, including some Republicans, in Congress expressed dismay, administration officials have in recent days often avoided offering specifics about what prompted the airstrike. But Mr. Trump said on Friday that part of the reason was that Iran was planning attacks on four American embassies.
Mr. Esper sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim in another interview on Sunday, on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”
But appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, also played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.
“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”
“But we had very strong intelligence,” he added.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics after the strike, said on CNN on Sunday that he was “worried” about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”
“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.
Asked specifically whether administration officials had briefed Congress on Iranian threats to four American embassies, as they have subsequently claimed, Mr. Lee said he did not believe so.
“I didn’t hear anything about that,” he said. “Several of my colleagues have said the same. So, that was news to me, and it is certainly not something that I recall being raised in the classified briefing.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck a similar tone, telling ABC’s “This Week” that “I don’t think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States” about the reasons for killing General Suleimani.
On “Face the Nation,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused the president and his top national security aides of “fudging” the intelligence around the Iranian threat.
“Frankly, I think what they are doing is overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows,” Mr. Schiff said.
He also disputed that Congress had been told about specific threats to American embassies, or other targets.
“There was no discussion in the Gang of Eight briefings that these are four embassies that were being targeted and we have exquisite intelligence that shows these are the specific targets,” he said, referring to the group of congressional leaders and Republican and Democratic leaders of the intelligence committees. “I don’t recall frankly there being a specific discussion about bombing the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.”
He added, “In the view of the briefers, there was plotting, there was an effort to escalate being planned, but they didn’t have specificity.”
The strike on General Suleimani, who was responsible for the killing and maiming of hundreds of American troops at the height of the Iraq war, prompted retaliatory strikes last week. The Iranian military launched 16 ballistic missiles at bases in Iraq where Americans are stationed, bringing both countries to the brink of war.
When the Iranian retaliatory strikes did not kill or injure anyone, both sides pulled back. But hours after the strikes, a Ukrainian airliner was shot down over Tehran, Iran’s capital, by Iranian air defenses, killing all 176 aboard. Iranian officials said the downing of the plane was “unintentional” and the result of heightened tensions in the region.
The Trump administration has also tried to keep up pressure on Tehran. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” that new sanctions the administration had announced last week against Iran would target industries beyond its oil sector to pressure its government.
“This is all really about cutting off money, oil sales, other revenue that would be funding their terrorist activities and their nuclear weapons development,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “We don’t want to target the people of Iran.”
Despite the new measures, questions remain about the Trump administration’s ability to further ramp up sanctions on Iran after having already used such tools so aggressively.
Meanwhile, China has continued to buy Iran’s oil. The United States has been cautious about confronting China too forcefully amid trade negotiations, but Mr. Mnuchin said he had been pressuring the Chinese to cut off their purchases of Iranian oil.
“China is subject to sanctions just like everybody else,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “We will continue to pursue sanction activities against China and anybody else around the world that continues to do business with them.”
Nicholas Fandos, Alan Rappeport and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.