SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee continued to bang the drum Thursday for congressional approval of any further military action against Iran, and says maybe he should have amplified his criticism of an “insulting” classified briefing by the Trump administration.
“My only regret is that I put the brakes on too much,” the Utah Republican said. “Perhaps I didn’t give it enough cowbell.”
A furious Lee said Wednesday that administration officials suggested to members of Congress during the briefing that it would be unpatriotic, un-American and harmful to Americans if they debated or discussed military action in Iran. He called the briefing the worst he has seen and said it was demeaning and insulting.
Lee said he went into the briefing, which included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and CIA Director Gina Haspel, undecided about a Senate resolution limiting the president’s power to order further military force in Iran, but came out supporting it.
The Democrat-controlled House passed a nonbinding resolution Thursday to limit Trump’s ability to act against Iran. All four Utah congressmen — including the state’s lone Democrat, Rep. Ben McAdams — voted against it.
President Donald Trump defended Wednesday’s briefing, saying he had calls from “numerous” members of Congress saying it was the “greatest presentation they’ve ever had.”
“I get along great with Mike Lee. I’ve never seen him like that,” Trump told reporters Thursday.
“Mike and Rand Paul disagreed because they want information that, honestly, I think is very hard to get. It’s OK if the military wants to give it, but they didn’t want to give it,” Trump said. “And it really had to do with sources and information that we had that really should remain at a very high level.”
Lee said he’s willing to accept — for now — that the airstrike Trump ordered last Friday that killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was morally and legally justified.
But he wants assurances that the president will seek congressional approval before any more hostilities against Iran.
“That was the issue that the briefers so badly botched yesterday, where they refused to agree to any set of circumstances in which they’d need authority from Congress,” Lee said on KSL Newsradio’s “Dave and Dujanovic.”
Lee told NPR on Thursday that one of his colleagues asked during the briefing whether a strike against the supreme leader of Iran, recognizing that he could be a threat to the United States, would require authorization for the use of military force.
“The fact that there was nothing but a refusal to answer that question was perhaps the most deeply upsetting thing to me in that meeting,” he said. “I think it was unprofessional, inappropriate and reflective of a certain cavalier attitude toward the Constitution.”
Lee said he found the briefing so distressing that he now favors Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine’s resolution to limit Trump’s ability to order military action against Iran without congressional approval. He said Kaine, of Virginia, has agreed to remove language that disparages Trump and last week’s attack.
“We wanted to make sure that the power to put American blood and treasure on the line is given only to that branch of government most accountable to the people at the most regular intervals. Ours is not a system in which we can be taken into war by the executive, and it never should be,” Lee said.
The House passed a resolution mostly along party lines Thursday limiting Trump’s ability to engage in hostilities against Iran under the 1973 War Powers Resolution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., referenced Lee’s description of the military briefing in her floor speech, though she didn’t mention his name.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the resolution has no impact, other than sending a message that the U.S. is mixed in its efforts to keep the country secure.
“All it is is an illustration of the hatred of some people toward Donald Trump that kind of blinds their eyes to the fulfillment of anything else that we wish to do,” he told KSL Newsradio’s “Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry.”
Bishop said he hasn’t been happy with how the War Powers Act has been used in the past, and if the resolution attempted to amend the law, he might consider it.
McAdams said the law already restricts the president’s ability to engage in military conflict without congressional authorization.
“I refuse to play politics when the lives of American service members are on the line. I stand with our men and women in the armed forces and the American people ahead of any political party,” he said in a statement.
McAdams also called on the Trump administration to be more transparent with its plan to keep the country safe going forward. Congress, he said, must openly question and debate the strategy for broader engagement in the Middle East that safeguards the U.S. and its allies.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said the measure would halt the use of military force against Iran, despite U.S. troops not being actively engaged in an ongoing conflict with Iran.
“Like many of my colleagues, I too feel that Congress should play its designated role in declaring war — but bipartisan changes to foreign policy are not brought about by symbolic messaging gestures,” he said in a statement.
Trump urged Republicans in a tweet to vote against “Crazy Nancy Pelosi’s War Powers Resolution. Also, remember her ‘speed & rush’ in getting the Impeachment Hoax voted on & done. Well, she never sent the Articles to the Senate. Just another Democrat fraud. Presidential Harassment!”
Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley called the House resolution “completely misguided.”
It tries to undermine the ability of the U.S. armed forces to prevent terrorist activity by Iran and its proxies, and attempts to hinder the president’s authority to protect America and its interests in the region from the continued threats, he said.
Lee said he has talked to Trump advisers about his position and hopes to speak with the president in the coming days.
Speaking on Fox News, Vice President Mike Pence said he and Trump have immense respect for Lee and that the senator is a great conservative.
“But we’ve had differences on U.S. policy in the region. I know Mike and Paul oppose the self-defense actions that we’ve taken in Yemen, and we’ll continue to discuss those honest differences of opinion with them,” Pence said.
Lee and Paul, a Kentucky Republican who also supports the Democratic war powers resolution, have called U.S. military intervention in Yemen unauthorized and unconstitutional.
Lee said his biggest concern about Iran is what the United States does next.
“If the U.S. military engages in a subsequent strike, we’ll have another round of briefings. They’ll come and make the same argument here, but that in turn will edge us closer to war,” he said. “What we’re trying to say is we need to have this debate and discussion as soon as possible in Congress so we can decide whether and to what extent the American people are ready to put blood and treasure on the line.”