WASHINGTON – Members of Congress drew sharply different conclusions from classified briefings on Iran Wednesday as top Trump administration officials laid out the justification for last week’s U.S. drone strike that killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s second-most-powerful official.
That controversial strike sparked Iran’s retaliatory attacks Tuesday, which involved ballistic missile attacks on two Iraqi airbases that house U.S. and coalition forces.
Tuesday’s developments inflamed the partisan tensions on Capitol Hill as lawmakers grappled with the possibility of a war with Iran and fretted about the safety of American troops abroad.
In closed-door briefings, President Donald Trump’s top national security advisers — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and CIA Director Gina Haspel – faced pointed questions from members of the House and Senate about the administration’s strategy toward Iran – and whether Trump plans steps to de-escalate, given his stated desire to avoid war.
Democrats left the briefings unnerved and unsatisfied.
“It was sophomoric and utterly unconvincing,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said after the House briefing.”I believe more than ever, the Congress needs to act to protect the constitutional provisions about war and peace.”
“The briefing was incredibly thin on facts,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said after the Senate briefing. To the extent facts were provided, Van Hollen said, “they did not support any claim of an imminent threat that would justify the actions they’ve taken with respect to eliminating Soleimani.”
Republicans came away reassured and supportive.
“The information that was shared was both compelling and decisive,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a staunch Trump ally. “This was a clear and present danger for American interests and American individuals.”
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the briefing included the “crystal clear information” that Trump had when he authorized the Soleimani strike.
“It would have been negligent, it would have been reckless, and it would have been an intentional disregard to the safety of Americans for the president not to act and not to take out Soleimani,” Risch said.
The polar-opposite accounts underscored the hyper-partisanship that has infected Congress, even on matters of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. policy toward Iran has become a fiercely partisan flashpoint, and lawmakers lashed out Wednesday from their respective political camps.
The only exceptions: Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul, two libertarian-leaning Republicans from Utah and Kentucky, respectively.
Lee said it was “probably the worst briefing” he’s ever attended.
The message from Trump’s advisers was “do not debate, do not discuss” the merits or legitimacy of further U.S. military attacks on Iran, Lee said. “You will be emboldening Iran” if you do, Lee said they were told.
“It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch … to come in and tell us that we can’t debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran,” he said. “It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional.”
Paul, a longtime opponent of U.S. military intervention, echoed those concerns and said the intelligence shared was “less than satisfying.”
Pompeo was scheduled to address reporters after the briefings, but he bolted out of the Capitol as senators flocked to the microphones.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said Pompeo and the other senior Trump advisers sought to shut down the briefing when the questions got too difficult.
“As the questions began to get tough, they walked out,” the New York Democrat said. “There were so many important questions that they did not answer.”
In an address to the nation Wednesday, Trump said there were no American casualties in the attack.
“All of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases,” Trump said.
He did not outline a specific U.S. military response to Iran’s attacks, although he warned Iran against trying to build a nuclear weapon and said his administration would impose new economic sanctions on Iran as he weighed next steps.
“Our great American forces are prepared for anything,” he said. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”
In a meeting with reporters Wednesday morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., listed four questions he and other House Democrats wanted answered at the briefing with Trump administration officials, including what the legal justification for killing Soleimani was and what the administration’s long-term strategy is.
“One could argue … [the strike on Soleimani] was an act of war against Iran,” Hoyer said. “The Constitution of the United States says that acts of war are declared by the Congress of the United States.”
Even before Tuesday’s developments, Democrats had expressed alarm that Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani would lead to another war in the Middle East. They questioned Pompeo’s assertion that Soleimani planned “imminent” attacks on U.S. troops, which top officials said justified the lethal strike.
The U.S. strike killed Soleimani, who led the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, near Baghdad’s international airport Thursday after a series of smaller confrontations between the United States and Iran. Soleimani trained and supported Tehran’s lethal proxy forces across the region. Iranian leaders vowed to exact revenge for his death, and they made good on that threat with Tuesday’s strikes.
What happens next?: Iran’s assault was the most aggressive in decades
As Trump contemplates a response to Iran’s missile attacks, House Democrats are likely to vote as early as Thursday on a war powers resolution that would restrict Trump’s military actions on Iran. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., introduced a similar resolution in the Senate.
Soleimani death: How Trump arrived at the decision to kill a top Iranian general
Before the Iranian missile strikes, Trump and top administration officials spent much of Tuesday defending the strike on Soleimani.
“His past was horrible. He was a terrorist,” Trump said at the White House. “And we saved a lot of lives by terminating his life, a lot of lives were saved. They were planning something, and you’re going to be hearing about it, or at least various people in Congress are going to be hearing about it tomorrow.”
That did not quiet the questions from congressional Democrats – particularly about Pompeo’s insistence that the Iranian general was on the verge of orchestrating attacks that would have killed hundreds of Americans.
Robert Malley, a national security official in the Obama and Clinton administrations, said the claim that Soleimani posed an imminent threat is “particularly questionable.”
Based on his experience working in the White House, Malley said, an imminent threat usually comes from “an operative who’s about to plant a bomb” or a terrorist on a suicide mission. Soleimani was the mastermind, not a front-line fighter, so taking him out would not quash an attack, Malley said.
If anything, Democrats said, Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani increased the likelihood that Americans would be targeted and killed.
“There are lots of unanswered questions,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said after Wednesday’s closed-door briefing. “I’m not sure that ‘Trust me’ is the satisfactory answer.”
He said the Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Trump’s Iran policy next week, and he held out the prospect of subpoenaing Pompeo if he did not appear voluntarily.
‘We’ve got to pray’: Lawmakers react to Iran’s missile strike on US military bases
The Trump administration sent Congress formal notification about the Soleimani attack Saturday, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said prompted “serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran.”
How we got here: Qasem Soleimani’s killing is the latest in Iran-US tensions
The Soleimani attack has roiled the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of mourners poured into streets in Iran, and the Iraqi parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for American troops to leave. U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria were ordered to hunker down in their bases and suspend their mission to defeat Islamic State militants.
Esper said Soleimani caused the deaths of hundreds of American troops by exporting Iranian weaponry and expertise to Iraq during the height of the Iraq War.
More recently, Esper blamed Soleimani for rocket attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, launched by pro-Iranian militias. One of those explosions killed an American contractor Dec. 27, a move that top officials said led to the decision to order the strike on Soleimani.
Esper cited “exquisite intelligence” that Soleimani was coordinating imminent attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East. The attacks, Esper said, were probably a matter of days, not weeks, from being launched. He referred to Soleimani as a legitimate target on the battlefield.
What you need to know: The death of Gen. Soleimani and the escalating situation with Iran
National security adviser Robert O’Brien went further, saying U.S. intelligence showed Soleimani planned to attack American facilities and kill “diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines” at those places.
“It was strong evidence and strong intelligence, and unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to get into sources and methods at this time, but I can tell you it was … very strong,” O’Brien said.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook
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