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Frustrated GOP senators want answers from Trump on Iran

Frustrated Senate Republicans say the Trump administration has largely kept them in the dark about a possible military confrontation with Iran.

What GOP lawmakers already know, however, has them on edge. Trump has deployed an aircraft carrier strike group, a Patriot missile defense battery and an Air Force bomber task force to the Middle East, while the State Department has ordered a partial evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

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A few legislators have received briefings, but many can only guess at the extent of the threat and where a ramp up in combat forces may lead.

“I don’t think it’s fair for us to walk around wondering,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP blocks Schumer effort to adjourn Senate until after election Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw MORE (R-S.C.), one of the Senate’s leading voices on global security issues.

Graham, the chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said he’s concerned about the evacuation of personnel from the Baghdad embassy given the regular attacks that facility endured during the height of the Iraq War.

“We’re clearly moving people,” he said. “This is a big deal.”

“We had people there during the height of the war,” he added of his experience at the Baghdad embassy. “I was there a bunch of time getting rocketed. If we could stay in operation then, it must be some kind of real threat.”

Republican senators say they don’t know whether Trump is really contemplating the deployment of 120,000 troops to the Middle East to deter attacks by Iranian-backed militants, which The New York Times first reported on Tuesday.

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerPush to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw Democratic super PAC pulls remaining ads from Colorado Senate race Exclusive: Poll shows Affordable Care Act challenge a liability for McConnell at home MORE (R-Colo.), who is up for reelection next year in a state Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLate night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study 10 steps toward better presidential debating Continuity is (mostly) on the menu for government contracting in the next administration MORE won in 2016, said he wants more information from the administration and is worried the conflict with Iran could escalate.

“There should be more briefings. I think we should have that sooner rather later. I’ve talked to the administration about that,” he said, referring to conversations he had in the previous 24 hours.

Gardner, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that lawmakers don’t have an administration assessment on news reports that Iranian proxies were given the green light to attack U.S. personnel in the Middle East.

Asked if he was worried about a rapid escalation of military hostilities, Gardner responded, “Anytime you’re dealing with a regime like Iran that has painted ‘death to America’ on missiles that have killed American soldiers throughout the Middle East, it’s a grave concern.”

One alarming scenario is that Saudi Arabia, which is waging a military campaign in Yemen’s civil war, could launch a retaliatory attack against Iran and draw U.S. troops into a regional conflict. Saudi officials stated Tuesday that Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are backed by Iran, have carried out multiple drone attacks on Saudi oil pumping stations.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeTed Cruz won't wear mask to speak to reporters at Capitol Michigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test Barrett fight puts focus on abortion in 2020 election MORE (R-Utah) said, “I’m always leery to get us more heavily involved anywhere. If we’re going to go to war somewhere, Congress ought to approve it.”

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMichigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 Top Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate MORE (R-Ky.) said he has warned the administration that it does not have congressional approval to go to war with Iran.

“I think it’s important that the administration know that they do not have the permission of Congress to go with Iran. The Constitution is very clear. Congress must declare war. I told the administration that today in our hearing. We had the undersecretary for policy from State. We want to be very clear to them they don’t have the prerogative to go to war without our authority,” he said.

Republicans said they asked last week for an all-senators briefing, but it wasn’t possible because of Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo: 'Dangerous' for Twitter to take 'non-viewpoint-neutral' stance Pompeo warns any arms sales to Iran will result in sanctions as embargo expires Trump turns his ire toward Cabinet members MORE’s trip to Brussels and Sochi, Russia. Meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi Wednesday, Pompeo said the United States wants Iran to behave like a “normal country” but warned that U.S. forces will respond if American interests come under attack.

Lawmakers have questions about the intelligence the Trump administration is using to justify the military deployment, which Britain, a close military ally, has called into doubt.

A senior British military official told reporters Tuesday that he did not see an increased risk of attack from Iran or connected militant groups. Major Gen. Chris Ghika, the deputy commander of a U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS, told The New York Times that “there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”

GOP lawmakers say they are more inclined to trust American intelligence sources but feel frustrated that the administration hasn’t shared their information with the vast majority of them.

“We know that we need to have the most accurate intelligence available, that we can determine, that we can arrive at, before we make any decisions about the use of military force. We know that from history. We know that just as a practical matter,” said Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranLobbying world This World Suicide Prevention Day, let's recommit to protecting the lives of our veterans Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg acknowledges failure to take down Kenosha military group despite warnings | Election officials push back against concerns over mail-in voting, drop boxes MORE (R-Kan.).

He called for senators to have a full briefing, arguing, “I think there’s a lot more to be known before decisions are made.”

A congressional official said the Gang of Eight, a group that includes the top Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate and House and the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, will get a briefing on Iran Thursday.

A briefing of the entire Senate is expected next week, though some Republicans contend that could be too late given the speed at which events are moving in the Middle East.

“My understanding is there will be [a briefing] by early next week, but I don’t know where we’re going to be by early next week. I hope I’m wrong, we could be full blown into this thing. It’s a much more urgent situation than I think is being reflected. I’m surprised there isn’t more talk about it,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOwners of meatpacker JBS to pay 0M fine over foreign bribery charges Questions raised about conflicts of interest around Biden son-in-law America needs an industrial policy — now more than ever MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I’ve been here eight years, this is by far the single most imminent potential conflict of this significance,” Rubio added. “I pray that it changes. I don’t want us to have a war in that region. I hope it doesn’t happen that way, but we have to respond if attacked.”

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerTrump to lift Sudan terror sponsor designation Ocasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts The 2016 and 2020 Senate votes are about the same thing: constitutionalist judges MORE (N.Y.) is calling on acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanHouse Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis Boeing pleads for bailout under weight of coronavirus, 737 fallout Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January MORE and the Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to testify before the Armed Services Committee in an open hearing before the end of the week.

Democrats say they have not been kept adequately informed.

“You can’t make foreign policy and national security decisions while flying in the blind. And right now because of the administration’s unwillingness to come and brief members of the Senate, particularly to the committees of national security of which Foreign Relations is one, that’s what we’re doing — flying in the blind,” said Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Kasie Hunt to host lead-in show for MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' Senators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report MORE (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischWhy the US should rely more on strategy, not sanctions Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Senators blast Turkey's move to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque MORE (R-Idaho) said he received a briefing from administration officials on the Iran threat but acknowledged many of his colleagues have not been kept up to speed.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said “the American people need to be told why the administration is moving an aircraft carrier group, bombers and other assets into harm’s way” and warned of a repeat of the military buildup that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“There’s a saying that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. The talk about secret information concerning Iran’s aggressive while refusing to give us information certainly smacks of Iraq,” he added.

Schumer also drew a comparison to Iraq on the Senate floor.

“The lessons of history teach us that when things are done in secret, behind closed doors, mistakes can be made and momentum built for a course of action that the nation ultimately regrets,” he said.

Jordain Carney and Rebecca Kheel contributed.