WASHINGTON, DC – The Trump administration made its case on Capitol Hill for killing a powerful Iranian general, but Democrats — and a handful of Republicans — said the classified briefings Wednesday were short on details and left them wondering about the president's next steps in the volatile Mideast.
Democrats said that by not disclosing many details of the threat that prompted the U.S. to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, President Donald Trump is asking the American public to trust the very intelligence reports he has often disparaged.
Top Trump administration officials have repeatedly stressed that the undisclosed intelligence about imminent threats to Americans in the Mideast required action — that the president would have been negligent not to strike Iran. But Democrats want more information about what led Trump to kill Soleimani — a man whose hands were “drenched in both American and Iranian blood,” according to Trump.
“Trust us. That’s really what it all boils down to," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said after a classified briefing top administration officials gave members of the House.
“But I’m not sure that ‘trust me’ is a satisfactory answer for me," Engel said.
In contrast, Sen. Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the Senate's meeting "one of the best briefings" he's had as a member of Congress. He said the information was "crystal clear."
Some Republicans joined Democrats in criticizing the administration's presentations.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said 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."
He said he found it “insulting and demeaning” for administration briefers to warn lawmakers against debating the merits of further military action against Iran because that would only embolden Tehran.
“It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch of government ... to come in and tell us that we can't debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran. It's un-American, it's unconstitutional, and it's wrong,” Lee said, adding that he now planned to support a war powers resolution introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
At one point, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, asked when, if not in this instance, would the administration consult Congress, according to a Senate aide familiar with the private session but unauthorized to discuss it by name. The answer from the top officials was basically a disinterest in consulting Congress, the aide said, leading some senators to storm out.
The House is expected to vote this week on a similar resolution to limit Trump's military actions regarding Iran.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he thought the congressional briefings offered lawmakers a compelling argument that the intelligence supported the strike on Soleimani. But he noted that only eight lawmakers — the top four lawmakers in the House and Senate and chairmen and vice chairmen of the intelligence committees in both chambers — are the only members of Congress who are authorized to see all the intelligence.
“One of the challenges, of course, is not everybody has, in fact most members of Congress do not have, access to the intelligence that I think was the most compelling,” Esper said. “That’s just simply the nature of the intelligence, and it’s restricted to the Gang of Eight.”
Democrats also are skeptical of the timing of the strike, which comes in the run-up to a Senate impeachment trial and at the start of a presidential election year. It's the same skepticism that some Republicans expressed in 1998 when they accused President Bill Clinton of using military strikes on Iraq to interrupt and delay a pending impeachment resolution against him.
A top defender of the president, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said afterward that “there’s no question” the killing was justified.
Asked if she was convinced by the briefing that Iranian attacks were imminent before the Soleimani strike, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said, “Yes. My questions were answered and satisfied."
Democrats weren't convinced.
“There were so many important questions that they did not answer,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., called the briefing “profoundly unconvincing” and said “no case was made" that the Iranian attacks were imminent. "I leave this (briefing) more troubled than I went into it.”
The White House so far has ignored calls to declassify the written notification that Trump sent to Congress after the military operation, as required by the 1973 War Powers Act. Some lawmakers have said it was ”vague" and inconsistent with details other administrations have provided Congress about military operations. They wondered why it had to be classified in the first place.
One lawmaker, who has read the classified notification Trump sent Congress, and another individual familiar with it said the two-page document did not describe any imminent, planned attacks or contain any new information. The lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the classified document, said the letter gave an historic account of past attacks that have been reported publicly.
It's unclear if more detailed information about the intelligence that led to the strike on Soleimani will ever be publicly released.
“Whereas the gravity of the situation requires a clear explanation of the Iranian threat to Congress and the public, disclosure of any possible classified information does risk exposing sources and methods which could then leave us blind to Iran’s next threat to U.S. lives,”' said Norman Roule, former national intelligence manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The lack of casualties from Iran's retaliatory strikes Tuesday on Iraqi bases housing American troops could tamp down Democrats' demand for more information, but it might not silence critics who think Trump only embraces U.S. intelligence that fits his agenda.
While in office, Trump has repeatedly disagreed or refused to accept U.S. intelligence assessments on a range of key national security topics, including Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal and the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Alan Fram, Dustin Weaver, Laurie Kellman, Lisa Mascaro, Matthew Daly and Mary Claire Jalonick contributed to this report.