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Sen. Lee And Other Lawmakers Criticize White House Briefing On Iran

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Trump administration has informed the United Nations that when it killed Iran's General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike, it was acting in self-defense. But many members of Congress haven't seen evidence of that. And according to some lawmakers who were briefed by the White House yesterday, they've been instructed not to ask tough questions about the president's ability to use military force against Iran in the future.

Our next guest was in that closed-door briefing and afterwards called it, quote, "insulting and demeaning". He is Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and he joins us now. Senator, thank you so much for talking with us.

MIKE LEE: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: You came out and came to the microphones and said it was the worst briefing you have seen on a military issue in your nine years in the U.S. Senate. What happened?

LEE: Yes. You know, my anger was not about the Soleimani killing. It was, instead, about the possibility of future military action against Iran. And it was on that topic that they refused to make any commitment about when, whether and under what circumstances it would be necessary for the president, or the executive branch of government, to come to Congress seeking authorization for the use of military force.

MARTIN: Because Congress was not given a...

LEE: I find that unacceptable.

MARTIN: Congress was not given a heads-up that the strike was going to happen against Soleimani.

LEE: That's right. That's right. And now, I want to be clear - with respect to the strike against Soleimani, that was arguably lawful. I still have questions that remain unanswered on that point. I'm going to set that side - aside a moment. And I'm going to assume, for purposes of this discussion, that that may well have been lawful.

What I'm most concerned about is about where that goes from here. What comes next? Is there another strike coming against Iran? If so, at what point do they need to come to us seeking an authorization for the use of military force? The fact that they were unable or unwilling to identify any point at which that would be necessary yesterday was deeply distressing to me.

MARTIN: What kind of hypotheticals were you putting to them in hopes of understanding when the administration sees a need for congressional authority?

LEE: As I recall, one of my colleagues asked a hypothetical involving the supreme leader of Iran. If at that 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? 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. 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.

MARTIN: So the reporting has it that you all, in that briefing, were outrightly discouraged from asking tough questions - that the tone in the room got a little tense when people tried to push. Is that correct?

LEE: Well, when people asked tough questions, it's not so much that we were discouraged from asking them in that context as much as it was we weren't getting direct answers. And at one point, at least one of the briefers discouraged us even from having a debate on the Senate floor, including, among other things, in the context of a War Powers Act resolution talking about future military action - that that might somehow embolden the Iranian regime in future attacks against the United States and wouldn't be helpful. I think that is the very kind of advice that is counterproductive and decidedly not helpful. And I found that upsetting.

MARTIN: So they were discouraging debate over a potential War Powers Act that would limit the president's ability to deploy military force against Iran. This is something, we should mention, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is bringing a vote on this very kind of resolution today. It is my understanding that you were against limiting the president's power in that respect before you went into this briefing, and you came out and changed your mind.

LEE: I wouldn't put it quite like that. I was undecided as to whether I would be supporting the resolution introduced by Senator Kaine - an amended, modified version of that pursuant to amendments that he agreed with me to make yesterday. But...

MARTIN: So where do you stand on...

LEE: ...Any doubt I had about joining that - oh, I'm going to join it. I'll be supporting it. I'll not only be voting for it, I'll become a co-sponsor of it as soon as those changes are made...

MARTIN: I do want to play...

LEE: ...To his amendment.

MARTIN: Sorry to interrupt. I do want to play a clip of Florida Senator Marco Rubio. He and other Republicans had a dramatically different take on the outcome of the briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: It was very well done. I think they've done an excellent job of outlining the rationale behind both the decision to go after Soleimani and the response to the Iranian attack yesterday.

MARTIN: Now, you have said earlier that you believe in the legal justification of the strike. But how could Marco Rubio come out of that briefing with such a different opinion than you?

LEE: I think he must have been in a different briefing than I attended. I literally find it difficult to imagine how my friend Marco, who is smart, who listens carefully, who cares about these things - how he could emerge from that meeting and say that it was good. It was terrible. I think it was an unmitigated disaster.

MARTIN: What kind of precedent do you think this sets?

LEE: Not a good one. It's a precedent that is, unfortunately, not itself unprecedented. We have had many decades now - going back 50, 60, 70 years - in which we've been drifting away from this idea embedded within the Constitution that the power to declare war belongs to the Congress. It's enumerated in Article I, Section 8. There's a reason for that. We wanted to make sure that the power to put American blood and treasure on the line is given only to that branch of government most accountable to the people at the most regular intervals. Ours is not a system in which we can be taken into war by the executive, and it never should be.

MARTIN: Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah. We appreciate your time. Thank you, sir.

LEE: Thank you.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson was listening into that conversation. She joins me now. Mara, what's your response?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, there.

MARTIN: What did you think about that?

LIASSON: Well, this - I have - there have been a lot of clashes between the president and his own party on foreign policy, even though Republicans are usually in lockstep with him on almost everything else. But I have never seen it reach this level of ferocity, even if it isn't that widespread other than Senator Lee. Senator Paul has also expressed his disappointment in the briefing. I don't know how many more Republicans would come forward.

But this is a pretty big split. And as Senator Lee said, the clash between the branches about war powers have been going on for a long time. Congress has been ceding its constitutional authority to declare war, bit by bit, to the executive. But this is a president who has said that Article II of the Constitution lets him do whatever he wants. And Mike Lee said he has a cavalier attitude towards Congress; others have said it's contemptuous.

MARTIN: Is this going to be a problem for the president, who up until now - as you have noted - has enjoyed a kind of unanimity among Republicans on the Hill?

LIASSON: I don't think that the War Powers Resolution is going to affect him in the short term. First of all, he seems to be willing to accept the off-ramp that Iran was offering, doesn't want to escalate. And also, this is a resolution. It's not...

MARTIN: Right. It's not binding.

LIASSON: It doesn't have the force of law, yeah.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson with context for us. Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.