WASHINGTON -- Democrats were still clamoring for answers about U.S. intentions in Iran, even after a closed-door briefing from Trump administration officials about heightened tensions in the region.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and other intelligence officials spoke with House Republicans and Democrats at the Capitol on Tuesday, followed by a separate briefing for senators. Democrats leaving the briefings characterized them as too-little-too-late and contended that any military action in Iran would require explicit congressional approval.
"The Iranians are nowhere near being ready to talk. They are not showing any signs of backing down from their provocatory behavior," said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. "So, tell me how this strategy is working if Iran won't talk and they're not de-escalating militarily?"
The private sessions came at the request of lawmakers seeking more information on recent U.S. movement in the region, including a carrier strike group deployment and the withdrawal of some diplomatic staff from the Baghdad Embassy. Shanahan characterized the U.S. strategy as defensive and promised to be more responsive to concerns from Congress.
"Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation," Shanahan told reporters after the briefing. "We do not want the situation to escalate. This is about deterrence, it's not about war."
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who generally supports Trump but had previously complained lawmakers weren't being briefed adequately on Iran, said that Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has "done a very good job communicating directly and indirectly to the Iranians of the price they will pay" if they attack U.S. forces.
Democrats said the White House's hesitation to share information with Congress, which has the constitutional authority to declare war, casts doubt on U.S. intentions in an unstable region that continues to be one of the world's most complex geopolitical challenges.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and a Marine Corps veteran who fought in Iraq, said he was alarmed that White House officials including national security adviser John Bolton appear to be pushing for military action in Iran, even if President Donald Trump would prefer to keep his campaign pledge to avoid costly foreign conflicts. Gallego compared current tensions to the run-up to U.S. military action in Iraq in 2003.
"I truly believe that the intel is being misinterpreted and misrepresented by Secretary Pompeo, by Bolton and other people that do want us to go to war in Iran as a repeat to Iraq," Gallego said as he left the briefing.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel said there is widespread concern among Democrats that the administration is rushing into an armed conflict. He said there was nothing new in the intelligence briefing, and said he was concerned about how long it took for Trump administration officials to explain their actions to lawmakers.