Trump Iran Briefing Backfires In Senate
The White House managed to worsen its standing in Congress Wednesday by infuriating a key Republican with an "insulting and demeaning" briefing on the strike against Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) emerged from the classified briefing fuming, and announced he would back Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine's (Va.) resolution to limit President Trump's war powers.
"I'm now going to support it. I walked into the briefing undecided. I walked out decided, specifically because of what happened in that briefing," Lee said.
It was "probably the worst briefing I've seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I've served in the United States Senate," he said.
The Utah senator, who has long been skeptical of the executive branch's war authorities, literally sputtered as he explained his disappointment to reporters.
"What I found so distressing about the briefing was that one of the messages we received from the briefers was 'Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran, and that if you do you will be emboldening Iran' -- the implication being that we would somehow be making America less safe by having a discussion," Lee said.
Lee complained that the administration briefing team, which included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA director Gina Haspel, refused to answer questions and treated senators like "little boys and girls."
"It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch of government -- I don't care whether they are with the CIA, with the Department of Defense or otherwise -- to come in to tell us that we can't debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran," Lee said. "It's un-American. It's unconstitutional and it's wrong."
He said they treated senators like children, and ducked numerous questions citing security concerns, even though the session was held in a secure room in the basement of the Capitol complex.
Lee stood with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as he denounced the White House's efforts to corral senators for its plans. Paul had been the only Republican until then to back Kaine's war powers resolution, which would require the removal of U.S. troops from hostilities against Iran, except for direct threats or emergencies.
Before Lee's fiery outburst, Kaine had said he was hopeful Republicans would come to his side. With Lee going on board so aggressively, it makes it likelier that other Republicans will follow.
When Democrats forced a vote last June to restrain Trump's actions in Iran, four Republicans voted with Democrats -- Paul, Lee, and Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Jerry Moran (Kan.). With one Democrat absent, the bid failed with 50 votes -- 10 short of what is needed to break a filibuster.
Kaine's resolution, though, is privileged under the rules and requires a simple majority. With all Democrats present, four Republican votes will pass it. It will be eligible for consideration beginning on Jan. 13.
The House is expected to vote on a resolution there on Thursday. Lee's loud support could well induce a number of war-skeptical Republicans there to join Democrats.
President Trump can veto the measure, but he would be declaring that he stands in opposition to the bipartisan majority of the United States Congress on a fundamental question of war and peace.
Lee's remarks are especially notable because his fellow Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill had been insisting that the briefings were exemplary.
"I just sat through one of the best briefings I've had since I've been here in the United States Congress," said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "You had people who gave absolute crystal clear information that the president and the national security people had when they made the decision to take out Soleimani."
He argued that the questions asked by Democrats in the briefing were inappropriate and showed simply that they hated the president.
"What you came away with after listening to the Democrats questioning these people is there is so much hate and vitriol and animosity against this president that they are willing to put at risk lives of American citizens and American military people," Risch said. He did not mention that Lee was asking at least some of the questions that were not getting answered.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate Minority Leader, also appeared angry after the session.
"There were so many important questions that they did not answer. We did not see a plan, a satisfying plan, for the future," Schumer said. "We had 97 senators there. Fifteen got to ask questions. As the questions began to get tough, they [the briefers] walked out."
Schumer said he asked for a commitment that all high-ranking officials would come back within a week, but did not get that.