WASHINGTON — Lawmakers came away with vastly different interpretations of two classified briefings that top Trump administration officials held Wednesday about the airstrike last week that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with two Republican senators sharply criticizing the officials.
"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," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said.
Lee said he left the briefing "somewhat unsatisfied" with the information given "outlining the legal, factual and moral justification for the attack."
"I find this insulting and demeaning," Lee added, saying that he now plans to vote in favor of a new war powers resolution from Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. "That briefing changed my mind," Lee said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., standing next to Lee, concurred, saying, "Today, this is Sen. Lee and I saying, we are not abdicating our duty."
The officials leading the briefing included Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.
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Democrats in the basement of the Capitol emerged from the briefing, which lasted about 90 minutes, expressing similar frustration with the Trump administration.
"We really don't have an idea of whether or not there was an imminent reason to do this," Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., said about the airstrike targeting Soleimani.
Democrats said that they didn’t hear anything during the closed-door briefing that suggested there was intelligence that showed Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the U.S. They also said that they were not satisfied with the legal justification on which officials are basing the airstrike, which is the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) passed by Congress in 2002 to invade Iraq.
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"The administration firmly believes that based on good intelligence, the threat was immediate," said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md. "But it appears to me that the actions that were taken was much more of a response to the past conduct of General Soleimani, and I've not yet heard sort of like the facts underlying what the potential imminent future threat that was posed by General Soleimani. I didn't hear anything about alternatives to neutralize or address the threat."
Lawmakers' frustrations in the briefing came to a head when Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., asked Pompeo when, if not during a situation like this, the administration thinks it needs Congress to authorize the use of military force, according to a Senate aide with knowledge of the briefing. The aide wasn’t authorized to discuss the classified briefing publicly and requested anonymity.
Pompeo and the other administration officials wouldn't directly answer the question. Instead, they responded by chiding the senators for harping on the issue and arguing that asking for authorization emboldens Iran. Their response set off both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who were in the room, the aide said, and the briefing ended soon after.
"They had to leave after 75 minutes while they’re in the process of telling us that we need to be good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public," Lee said. "I find that absolutely insane. I think it's unacceptable."
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., told reporters that the briefing was "sophomoric and unconvincing" and said that it was "absurd" that the administration is basing the action on the 2002 use of force.
"No case was made for imminence. No case was made for thinking this through, and I leave more troubled than when I went into it," he said.
After leaving the briefing, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted: "The bottom line is this: I did not hear evidence of a specific imminent threat that would allow an attack without congressional authorization. With consequences as serious as these, that is unacceptable. Congress needs to act."
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., suggested that it was entirely predictable that Democrats wouldn’t get the answers they wanted, saying, "If you had an expectation that you'd get something out of that, you haven't been here very long and you had false expectations."
Coming out of a similar briefing held in the Senate, Cory Booker, D-N.J., said, "This was a wholly unsatisfying briefing ... where I was presented with no evidence about this threshold and imminence" and called it "very frustrating."
Most Republicans, however, left the briefing with a different interpretation of what was presented, defending the president and the strike.
"I thought the briefing was very helpful — to have the secretary of state, secretary of defense and the other intelligence officials really walk through just how long of a history Soleimani had of inflicting terror and murder not only to Americans, but to others, our allies in the region, and the fact that he was plotting further attacks to kill Americans made it clear that it was time to take him out," said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a close Trump ally, said Haspel "gave the greatest breadth of information that was not only compelling but certainly exhaustive in terms of the number of attacks and planned attacks that have been contemplated and why the need for action was necessitated."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters after the Senate briefing that he was convinced Soleimani posed an urgent threat to the U.S. and that the U.S. was right to attack him.
"At a time when this was probably the most strategic response that could have been made, I think the other alternatives might have cost more lives,” said Blunt, who when asked how imminent the threat was responded, "Days."
Democrats reiterated their calls from earlier in the day for Congress to vote on a new war powers resolution to replace ones passed by Congress to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2002.
Progressive Democrats have been pushing proposals floated by Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and expressed openness to a measure by Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., which was announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Sunday. Kaine has proposed similar legislation in the Senate.
Pelosi announced Wednesday that the House would vote Thursday on Slotkin's resolution, saying in a statement that the House will "honor our duty to keep the American people safe" and "will move forward with a War Powers Resolution to limit the president’s military actions regarding Iran."
Khanna has introduced similar legislation with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would prohibit any funding for military force in or against Iran without prior congressional authorization. And Lee, who has long pushed for a new war powers resolution, is calling for a repeal of the 2002 war powers resolution Congress passed in order to invade Iraq.
"We have to make sure that Congress reasserts its role in exercising responsibility to, if in fact, any president wants to use force or conduct military strikes," Lee said after the briefing, "He or she must come to Congress for authorization."
Both Lee and Paul said Wednesday they would support Kaine's resolution.