An interesting thing occurred on Capitol Hill yesterday. A U.S. Senator demanded to be treated as an actual U.S. Senator. After the briefing by the Trump Administration on the “imminent” threat behind the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimanim, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee came out of the hearing irate at what he described as the “worst military briefing” he had ever witnessed. Lee is one of President Donald Trump’s most committed supporters and a hawk. However, he has a quaint notion of being part of an independent branch of government with independent obligations under federal law. Lee refused to simply rubber stamp the position of the White House and denounced the “briefing” as offering no real evidence and little beyond platitudes. Sen. Rand Paul joined Lee in criticizing the briefing as clearly insufficient. In response to this principled position, both have been accused of “empowering the enemy” by Sen. Lindsey Graham. Defending the authority and functions of Congress is precisely what the Framers demanded in our system of checks and balances.
The White House has recognized that it must establish that the killing was justified to halt an imminent attack. The President and every top official stated that the evidence was clear. There is no reason why that clear evidence could not be shared with Congress. More importantly, Congress has a right to the information under the War Power Act. Democrats left the briefing and uniformly said that no evidence of imminent attack was given. Then Lee came out and said the very same thing. He was clearly agitated by what he saw as an insult to Congress:
“I want to state at the outset: I support President Trump. The briefing lasted only 75 minutes, whereupon our briefers left. This, however, is not the biggest problem I have with the briefing, which I would add was probably the worst briefing I’ve seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.
“I find this insulting and demeaning to the Constitution of the United States. It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional. And it’s wrong. … They are appearing before a coordinate branch of government responsible for their funding, for their confirmation, for any approval of any military action they might take. They had to leave after 75 minutes while they were in the process of telling us that we need to be good little boys and girls and not debate this in public. I find that to be absolutely insane.”
Worse yet for the White House, the failure to share intelligence led Lee to change his mind and support a War Powers resolution introduced by Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine to curb Trump’s authority to take unilateral military action. He further stated that he resented the effort of the White House to tell Congress not to debate the issue on attacking Iran.
As someone who has long criticized the loss of congressional independence and authority to an ever-expanding Executive Branch, the moment was a rare and long-needed moment. Many of these senators only assert congressional authority when the White House is held by an opposing party. Most of the Democratic senators supported President Barack Obama as he circumvented Congress in a series of unilateral actions.
These senators are not anti-Trumpers. They are people of good faith who re seeking to fulfill their oaths to the Constitution and the American people. That is why these are profiles of courage in a time of cringing obedience on both sides of our political debate. One can disagree with their conclusions or, as a senator, what is necessary for supporting evidence, but we should all be able to commend their courage and integrity.