“The fact that there was nothing but a refusal to answer that question was perhaps the most deeply upsetting thing to me in that meeting,” says Lee in the NPR interview embedded below, reflecting on the now-infamous briefing. That hypothetical shouldn’t have been difficult for the briefers. Soleimani was arguably fair game because he was a military officer and was operating on Iraqi soil, where U.S. troops are stationed. Khamenei is a head of state and assassinations of political figures are barred by executive order. Plus, to hit him we’d have to attack Iran itself. And even if we caught him outside Iran, liquidating the nation’s supreme leader would be an act of all-out war that not even Soleimani’s death was. The reprisals wouldn’t be limited this time to missile attacks on an air base’s empty parking lot or trollish JPEGs of Trump with a handprint across his face.
Khamenei’s a terrorist and deserves the Soleimani treatment as a moral matter but so do a lot of people who’ll never receive it. So no, we couldn’t and shouldn’t target him without Congress weighing in beforehand to say on behalf of the American people that they accept the enormous consequences of proceeding with an operation like that.
According to Lee, though, the briefers were noncommittal when asked about it. Decapitating the head of a major Middle Eastern power on a presidential whim seems to be an option that’s in play among our top national security officers.
Lee was also asked today why his pal Marco Rubio seemed so impressed with what he heard in this otherwise highly depressing briefing. He’s too nice a guy to really unload (and Senate norms of comity would frown upon him for doing so even if he wanted to), but this is as close as we’ll get in Lee-speak to “Because he sucks.”
Sen. Lee to NPR: "I literally find it difficult to imagine how my friend Marco [Rubio], who is smart, who listens carefully, who cares about these things, how he could emerge from that meeting at say that it was good. It was terrible. It was an unmitigated disaster.”
— Burgess Everett (@burgessev) January 9, 2020
It’s not difficult to imagine. Rubio is an extreme hawk. Like Lindsey Graham, he’ll never decline an opportunity to provide political cover to the White House and Pentagon when they’re poised to flex some military muscle, even if that means operating in bad faith. Be happy that he at least didn’t stoop to the sort of demagogic garbage Graham did yesterday when he accused Lee and Rand Paul of “empowering the enemy” by wanting congressional limits on presidential warmaking. Or float the novel theory to the Fox faithful that it’s Congress that’s seeking to take away the constitutional power to declare war from the president rather than vice versa:
“[A]ccording to a source with knowledge of the conversations, Trump told people that he had watched [Tucker] Carlson’s show and it had affected his view on the Iran situation,” reported BuzzFeed in a story last night. That was the source of lots of jokes: To think, we might be bombing Iran right now if Bill O’Reilly were still in the 8 p.m. slot on Fox. But the alarming truth behind the absurdity of Trump taking his cues from a cable-news yakker is that Carlson may be more of a restraint on the president and, by extension, his natsec team right now than Congress is. If the people who briefed Lee yesterday really are telling Trump privately that he has the inherent authority to hit anyone and everyone at any time, with no advance buy-in from the national legislature, than persuading the president to the contrary is a far more potent weapon than Congress’s Article I power to check the executive. Sweet dreams tonight.