Trump says he likes Utah Sen. Mike Lee but thinks he’s wrong about Iran briefing

(Evan Vucci | AP) President Donald Trump delivers remarks on proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Washington.

Washington • President Donald Trump on Thursday pushed back on criticism by Sen. Mike Lee about a meeting where administration officials discussed with senators U.S. strategy toward Iran that the Utah Republican had dubbed the “worst briefing I’ve seen.”

Lee, who is a co-chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign in Utah, appeared irate after the 75-minute, closed-door briefing Wednesday between military and foreign policy leaders and members of Congress.

He said it was “demeaning” and “insulting” how the officials couldn’t answer basic questions of when the administration would seek congressional approval for actions against a foreign country. Lee even described the session as “un-American” and “unconstitutional” because he said senators were urged not to debate U.S. intervention in the region.

Trump on Thursday said he'd had “numerous” calls from members of Congress praising the briefing and wasn't sure what got under Lee's skin.

“I get along great with Mike Lee,” Trump said. “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.”

Trump said criticism by Lee and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was likely based on the fact military officials didn't want to divulge secret plans to a large group of members of Congress that could leak out.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, arrives for a markup session Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Lee criticized a security briefing on Iran by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials, saying it was "probably the worst briefing I've seen, at least on a military issue," in nine years in the Senate. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“Mike and Rand Paul disagreed because they want information that honestly I think is very hard to get,” Trump said. “It’s OK if the military wants to give it, but they didn’t want to give it. And it really had to do with sources and information that we had that really should remain at a very high level.”

The president added that that information could be given on an individual basis.

The briefing, which included Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was held in a secure room at the Capitol.

Lee, who has long fought against ceding more power from the legislative branch to the executive, says he will support a Senate measure — with some minor tweaks — that would limit the president’s power to launch military action.

The Democrat-controlled House moved to accomplish that Thursday, approving a resolution largely along party lines, although Utah Democrat Ben McAdams joined Republicans opposing it. A vote in the Republican-majority Senate could come soon.

On NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Lee laid out his main complaint about why he was so angered by the briefing meant to explain why U.S. forces killed Iran Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a move that prompted a missile attack by Tehran against military bases in Iraq housing American troops.

Lee said military leaders wouldn’t commit to asking Congress for any further authorization to take action against Iran, a point the Utah senator called unsettling.

“As I recall, one of my colleagues asked a hypothetical involving the supreme leader in Iran if at some point the United States government decided that it wanted to undertake a strike against him personally, recognizing that he could be a threat to the United States, would that require authorization for the use of military force?” Lee told NPR.

“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,” Lee continued. “I think it was unprofessional, inappropriate and reflective of a certain cavalier attitude toward the Constitution to refuse to make a commitment on that front.”

This story will be updated.