WASHINGTON -- President Trump's senior aides struggled Sunday to reconcile conflicting statements over the reasons for killing a top Iranian general, including Trump's assertion that attacks were being actively planned against a quartet of American embassies.
At the same time, the White House walked a careful line over anti-government protests that flared for a second day in Tehran. Crowds there and in other major Iranian cities marched amid anger over the government's admission that its forces accidentally downed a Ukrainian passenger jet last week, killing all 176 aboard, most of them Iranian.
In a round of interviews on news talk shows, top administration officials were eager to call attention to dissenting voices within Iran. But they also tried to avoid giving the impression that the demonstrations dovetailed with an American desire to undermine the Tehran government.
"You can see the Iranian people are standing up and asserting their rights, their aspirations for a better government -- a different regime," said Defense Secretary Mark Esper on CBS' "Face the Nation." But Robert O'Brien, the national security advisor, said regime change had "never" been the administration's Iran policy.
O'Brien, appearing on ABC's "This Week," said Iranian authorities were "having a very bad week" after denying and then acknowledging responsibility for shooting down the passenger plane. The strike came a few hours after Iran fired ballistic missiles at a U.S. base in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad's airport.
"This is a regime that's reeling from maximum pressure, they're reeling from their incompetence in this situation, and the people of Iran are just fed up with it," O'Brien told ABC.
Trump, who has been tweeting Farsi-language support for "the brave Iranian people," took an admonitory tone toward Iranian authorities on Sunday with an all-caps warning on Twitter: "DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS."
"The World is watching," the president wrote. "More importantly, the USA is watching."
But with questions mounting about the decision-making behind the targeting of Soleimani, senior administration officials floundered in the face of pointed questions about the legal justification for the action.
Officials have repeatedly cited an "imminent" threat from Soleimani, and Trump suggested in a Fox News interview Friday that the general was readying attacks on four U.S. embassies in the region.