Elizabeth Warren pointedly refused to criticize Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an interview Sunday, saying instead that the former leader of the shadowy Quds Force was a "high-ranking official for the government of Iran."
And, in a head-turning moment, Warren said it was "reasonable" to ask whether President Trump ordered Soleiman's killing last week to distract from his pending Senate impeachment trial -- drawing rebukes from conservatives and other commentators, who called her remarks an "unhinged" bid to salvage her campaign's foundering poll numbers and sagging fundraising.
Warren's comments on Soleimani to CNN's "State of the Union" were another departure from her statement shortly after the Iranian general was killed in a U.S. airstrike last Thursday. At the time, Warren characterized Soleimani as a "murderer," referring to his leadership of Tehran's proxy forces in the wider Mideast and his involvement in American deaths. But, under pressure from left-wing groups, Warren changed her approach.
"Look, it was a targeted attack on a government official, a high-ranking official for the government of Iran," Warren said when anchor Jake Tapper asked her whether Soleimani had been assassinated. "We are not safer today than we were before Donald Trump acted." (Speaking to a reporter on Saturday, though, Warren unequivocally characterized Soleimani's killing as an "assassination" this weekend.)
Pressed by Tapper whether Warren believed Trump had ordered Soleimani's death to distract from his pending Senate impeachment trial, Warren didn't reject the notion.
"Look, I think people are reasonably asking about the timing, and why it is the administration seems to have all kinds of different answers," Warren responded, saying there was no clear evidence that Soleimani posed an "imminent" threat and that the Trump administration's justification has changed somewhat.
She added: "I think it is a reasonable question to ask. ... I think it’s the right question to ask."
Warren made a similar comment Sunday on NBC News' "Meet the Press," telling anchor Chuck Todd, "The question is, why now? Why not a month ago? Why not a month from now? And, the administration simply can't keep its story straight. It points in all different directions."
Soleimani was killed in Iraq, and U.S. officials said he was plotting imminent attacks on American interests in the Middle East, as he has in recent decades largely through proxy militias.
The U.S. also has blamed Soleimani for a Dec. 27 attack that killed a U.S. contractor. Iranians who later attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad appeared to write Soleimani's name on the compound walls, saying he was their commander.
"Elizabeth Warren won't say one bad word about Soleimani."
Conservatives and commentators sharply rebuked Warren's comments, with some saying she likely was responding to her dropping poll numbers.
"Elizabeth Warren won't say one bad word about Soleimani, calls him 'a government official,' a high ranking military official,' then pivots to Ukraine," The Washington Post's Josh Rogin tweeted.
The Republican National Committee's rapid response director Steve Guest added: "Elizabeth Warren pushes far left conspiracy that Soleimani strike was distraction from impeachment. Warren is floundering. This is totally unhinged."
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands flooded streets Sunday in Iran to walk alongside a casket carrying Soleimani's remains. Members of Iran's parliament also could be seen on video chanting "Death to America," as they have done repeatedly in recent years.
Mourners on the streets beat their chests, wept and cried out carrying posters bearing the image of Soleimani. The leader of one Iranian proxy, Lebanon's Hezbollah, said Soleimani's killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members spread across the region fair targets for attacks. And, a former Revolutionary Guard leader suggested the Israeli city of Haifa and "centers" like Tel Aviv could be targeted.
In Iraq, where Soleimani was killed, the parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling for an end of the foreign military presence in their nation, an effort aimed at expelling the 5,000 U.S. troops stationed there over the war against the Islamic State group.
Fox News' Tara Prindiville, Brian Flood and The Associated Press contributed to this report.