WASHINGTON — Lawmakers left a closed-door briefing with some of the Trump administration’s most senior national security officials Wednesday afternoon deeply divided over whether the administration was authorized to carry out the strike that killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad last week.
The administration has repeatedly said Soleimani was killed to avoid an “imminent” attack against Americans. But Democrats said the briefing Wednesday did not make a convincing case that any looming threat against the United States was averted when Soleimani was killed.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said he did not leave the briefing feeling convinced that Soleimani posed an “imminent threat.” He said that his committee would hold hearings next week to move forward with assessing congressional authorization for military action, and that Pompeo has been invited to attend.
When asked whether he would consider subpoenaing Pompeo, Engel said, “It’s a possibility.”
“We haven’t made any decision on that,” he added.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) said she wasn’t certain the officials even understood themselves why Soleimani was killed. “I don’t know that they know the rationale,” she said. “Certainly they didn’t tell me what it was. … The explanation did not in any way show that it was imminent. They did not convince me that it was something that should have been done.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said officials walked lawmakers through the history of Soleimani’s threats against the United States and its allies, and said “the fact that he was plotting further attacks to kill Americans made it clear that it was time to take him out.”
“And obviously, you can’t go into full detail about the intelligence of those future attacks,” Scalise said. “But how much is enough?”
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, echoed Fudge’s concerns. “I didn’t hear any justification that differed from any activity that Soleimani has conducted over the last 15 years at various points,” he said.
He described “multiple moments of grumbling in the room” during the briefing.
But Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) said that Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke “with more specificity” about the imminence of the attack, and removed all doubt in his mind.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he could say “with assurance” that the threat Soleimani posed “was not the same thing we’ve been seeing for the past few years. This was something different.”
Rogers said the attack was justified under the two Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolutions passed in 2001 and 2002.
Scalise also said the 2002 AUMF authorized the attack and that lawmakers should be “coming together to support our commander-in-chief to protect America — not debating how to limit the president’s ability to defend this country.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) also said it is an “inappropriate time” for the debate over war powers that some Democrats seek.
“You don’t have a debate about that in the middle of a conflict,” he said. “There’s no doubt he has legal authority,” he added, referring to Trump.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the armed services committee, said the briefing was vague, but that he left “persuaded that we had strong intelligence that meant we had to take action.”
He said he thinks the strike on Soleimani was legally justified, and that the United States has “the absolute right and I would say responsibility to protect Americans from such attacks.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), also a member of the House intelligence committee, said he still does not know the legal or intelligence justification for the strike against Soleimani.
“I leave with the feeling of more questions than answers,” he said.