Washington • Insulting. Demeaning. Unacceptable. Unconstitutional. Un-American.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, invoked all of those words minutes after leaving a briefing Wednesday on the escalating hostilities between the United States and Iran, and argued that the Trump administration’s handling of the conflict so far has moved him to support a Democratic-led effort to rein in President Donald Trump’s power to take the nation to war.
Lee said the briefing on U.S. forces assassinating a top Iranian general and Tehran’s retaliation of bombing air bases in Iraq housing American troops “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.”
“What I found so distressing about that 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 then if you do, you'll be emboldening Iran,'” Lee said, his tone underscoring his anger about the closed-door briefing.
“The implication [from the briefers] being that we would somehow be making America less safe by having a debate or a discussion about the appropriateness of further military involvement against the government of Iran,” Lee continued. “Now, I find this insulting and demeaning, not personally, but to the office that each of the 100 senators in this building happens to hold.”
Lee said he had entered the briefing — held with top military commanders as well as likely intelligence officials — unsure if he would support a measure by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to halt any military action but emerged a supporter.
“It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch of government — I don’t care whether they’re with the CIA, with the Department of Defense or otherwise — to come in and 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.”
Lee had joined fellow members of Congress in the briefing that comes after Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and Iran responded by firing a series of missiles at bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed. The U.S. military reported no casualties but was still assessing the damage.
While saying Wednesday he hopes for a deescalation of hostilities, Trump has sent hundreds more troops to Iraq where the U.S. Embassy had been recently attacked.
Lee cited the Constitution in arguing that the administration needs to hold back on any offensive action without congressional consent.
“When we send our brave soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines into harm’s way," Lee said, “we owe the American people the decent courtesy to follow the Constitution, to debate and discuss these actions.”
The Utah senator specifically called out the administration’s briefers on the topic, saying they left after 75 minutes and couldn’t answer many questions tossed their way by members of Congress, despite the fact the discussion was being held in a secure room inside the Capitol. Lee compared it to the military telling Congress to run away “like good boys and girls.”
“It was absolutely insane,” Lee said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., stood next to Lee as he vented about the briefing and offered support.
“Today, this is Senator Lee and I saying, we are not abdicating our duty," Paul said.
Earlier Wednesday, Sen. Mitt Romney told The Salt Lake Tribune that he believes Trump is “genuine” in not wanting Iran to have nuclear weapons and that the country should abandon its “terroristic activities” in the region.
“Where we go from here depends in part on what Iran does,” Romney said.
But, the Utah Republican added, the United States plays a role in that response.
“The president took action, which I think was effective in removing a terrible person who has done terrible things,” Romney said, referring to Soleimani. “And there’s great upside from that action. And there’s also downside. And which of those turns out to be the case long term will depend on what Iran does. And to a degree, what we do.”
In a statement Wednesday, Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said he was relieved there were no casualties in the airstrikes Iran launched and hopes the military actions will end.
“I’m also encouraged that the Iranians now appear to be ‘standing down’ and that both sides can work to step back and take actions that lower tensions in the region,” McAdams said in a statement. "I agree with the president that Iran should not obtain nuclear weapons. That is a worthy goal that all parties should support, and I look forward to working with the president and my colleagues to pursue a comprehensive strategy, with buy-in from our allies, that reduces the threat of nuclear proliferation.”
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said before the administration’s briefing that he liked what he heard from Trump during his morning remarks.
“There seemed to be a lot of restraint," Curtis said. “There seemed to be a thoughtful and careful response to the situation.”