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Trump officials frustrate senators with Iran briefing, as House readies votes to restrain further hostilities

President Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Toledo this month. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Senators emerged from an Iran briefing Tuesday frustrated by what they described as the Trump administration’s persistent unwillingness to engage Congress on military decisions, blasting State Department officials for holding a closed-door session when none of the information they shared was classified.

“The position of this administration, and probably most of the recent administrations, is they don’t care what Congress thinks, and they don’t believe they need any authorization for any war ever,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said, after the meeting with Trump’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, and others.

The contentious briefing comes as the House prepares to vote on two measures this week seeking to restrict President Trump’s ability to engage in hostilities against Iran, and as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged to testify about related policy at a date to be determined, according to Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was the latest in a number of such engagements between lawmakers and administration officials since the president’s controversial decision to kill a senior Iranian commander early this month.

How Trump decided to kill a top Iranian general

In the weeks since Trump ordered the strike in Baghdad that killed Qasem Soleimani, lawmakers in the House and Senate have rallied around measures to restrain the president’s ability to conduct hostilities against Iran absent explicit congressional authorization.

Some of those bills, including the two before the House this week, reflect measures that passed that chamber as amendments to the annual defense bill last year. The first is a measure to repeal the 2002 authorization to use military force in Iraq, which the administration cited as part of its legal justification in the Soleimani strike; the second would forbid federal funds from being used in hostilities against Tehran except in cases of self-defense.

Trump weighed in Wednesday morning with a tweet telling House lawmakers to “vote their heart” on the Iraq measure, appearing to offer encouragement — or at least permission — for them to vote to undo a key underpinning of the administration’s defense of its actions against Soleimani.

“On the Iraq War Resolution being voted on tomorrow in the House of Representatives, we are down to 5000 soldiers, and going down, and I want everyone, Republican and Democrat, to vote their HEART!” Trump wrote.

The president has frequently advocated reducing or eliminating U.S. troop presence in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, over the objections of most Republicans who believe doing so would enable terrorist groups to expand their footprint and leave U.S. allied groups susceptible to retaliation from governments aligned with other forces in the multipronged conflict.

It is not clear if Trump’s message will change the odds of either House measure being taken up in the Senate following their expected passage in the House on Thursday. Absent the president’s tweet, the two bills faced long odds of being put to a vote on the Senate floor despite building momentum among lawmakers in both chambers to reassert their constitutional right to be consulted in advance of such attacks.

In the weeks since the strike that killed Soleimani, administration officials have given conflicting reasons for why they believed they had legal basis to carry it out absent congressional approval. Some officials have said it was to ward off an imminent threat that Soleimani posed to U.S. troops in the region; others, including Trump, have suggested it was retaliation for various acts of Iranian aggression, including proxy support for terrorist groups and the killing of a U.S. contractor in Iraq.

Senate resolution to limit Trump’s military authority on Iran has enough GOP votes to pass, key Democrats say

The shifting rationale is part of what drove the House and Senate to rally around war powers resolutions aimed at restraining Trump’s authority to launch fresh hostilities against Iran. A nonbinding resolution passed the House this month on a vote of 224 to 194; a potentially binding resolution that has enough votes to pass in the Senate has stalled while the chamber sits for Trump’s impeachment trial.

Officials did not deliver a clearer rationale for the strike during Tuesday’s briefing, senators said.

“There’s a lot of frustration that the administration really had so many changing explanations,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said, emerging from Tuesday’s briefing. He said the officials claimed “there was important classified information to back up their strategy,” but “while we were there, we didn’t hear it.”

Administration officials also did not commit to being more forthcoming with Congress, in deference to its war powers, than they have been in the weeks since the Soleimani strike.

“They are expressly not committing to any such prior consultation or authorization,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said.

Several senators said there was no reason for the briefing to have been classified and expressed disapproval to officials for insisting on closed-door hearings that could have been held in the open.