Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, told me in an interview that he wants to see the House hold open hearings on multiple aspects of this spiraling situation.
“I think there should be open hearings on this subject,” Schiff told me. “The president has put us on a path where we may be at war with Iran. That requires the Congress to fully engage.”
Here’s the latest. New reporting has revealed deep internal skepticism over the intelligence underpinning the assassination’s stated rationale. Iran just announced it will no longer abide by restrictions in the Iran nuclear agreement, revealing the profound folly of Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, given that Iran had previously been complying with it
Meanwhile, Trump is firing off deranged, Dr. Strangelovian tweets threatening to strike Iranian cultural targets — a war crime — while blithely asserting zero obligation to inform Congress of any future attacks.
On Trump’s unhinged threat of war crimes, Schiff offered an interesting but overlooked point. He noted there is no chance Trump’s threats to bomb Iranian cultural sites, or his related threat of “disproportionate” military responses to future Iranian attacks, reflect any actual planning in the Pentagon.
“None of that could come out of the Pentagon,” Schiff told me. “Absolutely no way.”
That Trump is threatening to deploy our military to commit war crimes in a manner entirely severed from real-world military planning is deeply abnormal and must not be allowed to slide by as just Trump being Trump.
What hearings could accomplish
In open hearings, Democrats could seek to grill Pentagon officials on whether Trump’s threats represent real planning — which they surely do not — and on whether in their view, such threats could recklessly lead to more negative consequences.
Another thing that could be explored in open hearings is how this decision was made and whether the intelligence supports it.
Schiff told me the intelligence he has seen as part of a briefing of select congressional leaders on Friday does not support the decision to kill Soleimani.
“I’m certainly not satisfied that the intelligence supports the conclusion that the killing of Soleimani was going to either prevent attacks on the United States or reduce the risk to American lives,” Schiff said.
“If anything, that risk is going to go up, not down,” Schiff continued, citing the news that the Iraqi parliament has voted to expel U.S. troops from Iraq, which could compromise the fight against the Islamic State. “A lot of these reactions were predictable. And the long-term consequences could be even more grave.”
Open hearings are also necessitated by reporting that reveals divisions inside the administration as to whether the intelligence dictated that Soleimani’s killing was needed to stop an “imminent” threat. Schiff said intelligence he has seen would likely prompt internal dissent.
“I don’t think the intelligence was of the kind of character that would lead to a uniform recommendation that Soleimani should be killed,” Schiff told me. “I think that was an impulsive judgment made by the president.”
Indeed, open hearings could explore whether the decision shows that at this point, the deliberative process is basically broken.
“I fear this is the result of the president purging anyone of stature who could stand up to him,” Schiff told me. “I think this is the result of a dysfunctional and nonexistent National Security Council process.”
Schiff added that Trump is “making decisions by the seat of his pants while he’s on vacation in Mar-a-Lago.”
What else Democrats can do
The House also must now move aggressively to curtail Trump’s warmaking authority. The administration has claimed the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force as its authority for killing Soleimani — which is absurd, since that’s focused on Iraq. Former president Barack Obama also employed similarly absurd justifications for his own military actions.
So the House can now vote to repeal the 2002 AUMF — and to substantially revise the 2001 AUMF, which authorized force against the 9/11 perpetrators. They can also pass a measure introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) that prohibits future hostilities against Iran without congressional authorization.
Schiff told me he fully supports such efforts, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has announced that something constricting Trump will be voted on this week.
Open hearings could help build support for such measures, and could involve other committees — such as Armed Services and Foreign Affairs. Some Democrats have argued that, by casting light on Trump’s slipshod national security strategizing and decision-making, such hearings could complement the ongoing impeachment process.
It could get worse
If Trump’s decision-making grows more unhinged, hearings could play a key role as well.
“Hearings can be a way to remind, say, the Pentagon leadership that they have an obligation to refuse to carry out illegal orders from the president,” Josh Chafetz, author of a book on Congress’ hidden powers, told me.
Chafetz noted that Democrats could press Pentagon officials to reiterate that they are obligated not to carry out such illegal orders, and then press them on whether, say, an order to bomb Iranian cultural sites would be illegal, to “get them on record in advance.”
If you don’t think there’s a reasonable chance that Trump could issue such orders, you haven’t been paying attention.