“Illegal” or “bold”? Lawmakers divided over airstrike killing Iranian military leader

Lawmakers are divided over the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds military force and one of the most powerful figures in the Islamic Republic. The strike, which drew a warning of “crushing revenge” from Iran and condemnation from Iraq’s government, has raised concerns about potential retaliatory attacks from Iran and encroachment by the president on Congress’s power to declare war.

President Trump did not brief all relevant congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, before the airstrike, and had not given any direct remarks other than through Twitter by Friday morning. The major military action, as CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett reports, came as a surprise that was reverberating across Capitol Hill and the world. 

A top White House official told CBS News White House correspondent Paula Reid that “significant” conversations with Congress began after the strike, and those conversations continue Friday. The “Gang of Eight,” the top eight leaders in Congress, will likely be briefed shortly, and there could be a briefing for all members of Congress, Reid reports. 

The president also did not brief top Democrats when the U.S. initiated an operation to take out the top ISIS leader Aku Bakr al-Baghdadi last year, infuriating congressional Democrats. When the Obama administration took out Osama bin Laden in 2011, then-Congressman Mike Rogers, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the entire “Gang of Eight” had been briefed on the plans, although they were not all briefed at the same time, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday evening. Pelosi warned in a statement that the airstrike might lead to “further dangerous escalation of violence,” adding that this action was taken without the full consultation of Congress.

“The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation and on the next steps under consideration by the Administration, including the significant escalation of the deployment of additional troops to the region,” Pelosi said.

Senator Tom Udall, the author of a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to prevent war with Iran without the consent of Congress, said in a statement that Mr. Trump “is bringing our nation to the brink of an illegal war with Iran without any congressional approval as required under the Constitution of the United States.”

“Such a reckless escalation of hostilities is likely a violation of Congress’ war making authority – as well as our basing agreement with Iraq – putting U.S. forces and citizens in danger and very possibly sinking us into another disastrous war in the Middle East that the American people are not asking for and do not support,” Udall said. “Congress must step in immediately to reclaim its Constitutional war powers.”

The amendment, which was sponsored by Congressman Ro Khanna in the House, was ultimately stripped from the NDAA. 

However, Republicans praised the action, saying that Mr. Trump had approved a proportionate response to aggression from Iran. Senator Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised Mr. Trump for his “decisive action and the successful outcome.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch ally of the president, also tweeted praise of the strike.

“I appreciate President @realDonaldTrump’s bold action against Iranian aggression. To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” Graham tweeted. Graham said on “Fox & Friends” Friday that he was briefed on the operation when he visited Mar-a-Lago earlier this week.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who posted pictures to Instagram of himself with the president at Mar-a-Lago Thursday evening, said in a statement that the airstrike is “not only a statement to those seeking to attack America, but it also marks the stark difference between this administration and previous ones.”

“We will not let attacks that kill Americans go unpunished,” McCarthy said.

Congressman Matt Gaetz, who had co-sponsored Khanna’s NDAA amendment, wrote on Twitter that he believed Mr. Trump’s action was proportionate.

“President @realDonaldTrump has shown amazing restraint with Iran, but he was very clear: if harm came to Americans, he would respond with overwhelming force. That is what occurred here and I support the President’s decision. The world is a better place without Soleimani in it,” Gaetz wrote.

Mr. Trump has been willing to pursue high-value terrorist targets, but has also avoided moves likely to expand U.S. military actions — as evidenced by his attempts to withdraw forces from Afghanistan and his decision to pull special forces out of northern Syria a few months ago.

The move to assassinate Soleimani marked a critical 180-degree turn for the president, Garrett said, and it came as he campaigns for re-election this year. It draws both nations closer to war, and dramatically increases the risks for Americans in the Middle East and elsewhere.

In 2011 and 2012, Mr. Trump criticized then-President Obama for his Iran policy choices, saying in one tweet: “Don’t let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected.”

Now the president has proven what U.S. intelligence and military might can do. Mr. Trump’s gamble, Garrett said, is that Iran is too economically and politically weak to respond — a risk previous presidents have been unwilling to take.

The administration has vehemently defended the unilateral military strike as a legitimate act of self-defense. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on the phone early Friday with several of America’s international allies — and adversary China — to stress that point. 

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortegas said that Pompeo had briefed international foreign leaders on Mr. Trump’s “recent decision to take defensive action,” citing “imminent threats to American lives.” The statement also said that the U.S. was “committed to deescalation.”

The Defense Department also framed the airstrike as defensive in a statement on Thursday evening, saying “this strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”

In an interview with “New Day” on CNN Friday morning, Pompeo declined to offer specifics on the nature of the imminent threat from Soleimani, but said that the strike “saved American lives, there’s no doubt about that.”

“We know this was imminent, this was an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision-making process,” Pompeo said on CNN. Pompeo also said that the “imminent threat” was “in the region,” not to the United States.

Tucker Reals contributed to this report

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