Sen. Mike Lee praises Trump but slams the Iran briefing at Utah Eagle Forum convention

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mike Lee speaks at the Utah Eagle Forum convention in Sandy on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020.

Sandy • Sen. Mike Lee heaped praise on President Donald Trump on Saturday for being “more respectful and more restrained in his exercise of his commander-in-chief power than any other president in my lifetime.”

“He has made us look stronger through the restraint of power, not through the excessive abuse of it. And I applaud him for that,” Lee, R-Utah, said.

But that doesn’t mean the senator is backing down from his blistering criticism of a briefing that Trump administration officials gave senators about the ongoing tensions in Iran. And Lee is continuing to support Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine’s war powers resolution, as well as bill he’s sponsoring with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to curb Trump’s ability to expand the conflict.

Speaking at the Utah Eagle Forum’s annual convention on Saturday, Lee wanted to make clear that his stand, which has gained national attention, is “in no way, shape or form" a signal that his support for the president is wavering. Lee is the co-chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign in the state.

The Eagle Forum is a far-right group active in state politics. He was joined at the convention in Sandy by Republican Reps. John Curtis, Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart, as well as Jennie Taylor, the wife of the late Maj. Brent Taylor, former mayor of North Ogden.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mike Lee shares his feelings about the Iran military briefing while speaking at the Utah Eagle Forum Convention, in Sandy, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020.

Lee’s critical comments about the Iran briefing made national news Wednesday as military leaders and Trump administration officials refused to answer the questions of senators or indicate what level of military intervention would require the sign off of Congress. This took place after the United States used a drone to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. In reaction, Iran struck two U.S. bases in Iraq with ballistic missiles, though no one was killed. Lee called officials’ lack of answers “insulting,” “demeaning,” and ultimately “un-American.”

“What they were essentially telling us, contrary, I believe, to the expressed desire and will of the president of the United States, whom they serve, 'Don’t talk about it. Don’t discuss it. Don’t debate it. This is for us, the experts to decide,’” Lee said Saturday.

Lee said, "The reason this was insulting not to me, but to you, insulting to people like my friend, Cory Green, like my friend Jennie Taylor, who themselves and their own families have paid a significant price for freedom. We owe it to them and to their families, to you and your families, to do it the way that we're supposed to do it.”

Lee stressed the importance of the Constitution giving Congress the power to declare war and not the executive branch. On Saturday, Lee issued a joint statement with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., calling on the Senate to vote for the “No War Against Iran Act,” which “utilizes Congress’ power of the purse to block any funds from going to an unauthorized war with Iran.”

“If we’re going to engage in further hostile acts against Iran, we need to do so just as the Constitution endorses and as the Constitution ordains," Lee said to the Eagle Forum attendees. “We need to do so only when there is an authorization to use military force or a declaration of war, or where the president is acting to repel or respond to a national or imminent attack on the United States.”

After his frustrated comments Wednesday, Lee said he called the president. “I explained to him. He and I had a great relationship. He and I are friends, and we continue to be friends through this."

The president has responded to Lee’s criticism, which included the senator saying it was the “worst briefing I’ve seen." At the White House, Trump said, “I get along great with Mike Lee. I’ve never seen him like that. But other people have called and they’ve said it was the best presentation they’ve ever seen.”

Among Republicans, Lee has only been supported by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Lee has long fought for Congress to take a more aggressive role when it comes to military intervention. And he said Trump has been rightly hesitant to expand the use of U.S. military might in foreign counties.

“It is a very significant thing that over the last three years there have been events happening throughout the world that could have, and I believe under other presidents would have, gotten us involved in yet another war, some of which could have resulted in global conflict,” Lee said. “But not under this president.”

Lee also questioned why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had not delivered the articles of impeachment to the Senate yet. She is expected to in the coming days.

“I think they know that once that process begins, once there is an actual airing of the arguments and the arguments are allowed to be analyzed critically, as they were not in the House, they're going to look a little bit silly. Because they are,” he said.

Lee said, “The gravity of their complaint really rests on the fact that President Trump succeeded where President Obama tried, and failed for years running, to persuade the Ukrainian government to investigate allegations of deep-seated corruption within the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.”

“It’s not impeachable. It’s not criminal,” Lee said.

When Lee finished his speech, the conservative crowd showered him with sustained applause.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and generally writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune.