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 GrahamCheney unveils Turkey sanctions legislation Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs War of words at the White House 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 GardnerGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' The Hill's Morning Report - Dem debate contenders take aim at Warren Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever MORE (R-Colo.), who is up for reelection next year in a state Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' Hillary Clinton praises former administration officials who testified before House as 'gutsy women' Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart 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 LeeHillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets Republican lawmaker proposes transferring drone authority to local governments A decade of policymaking failures is to blame for new Syria crisis 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 PaulCheney unveils Turkey sanctions legislation CNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump isolated amid Syria furor | Pompeo, Pence to visit Turkey in push for ceasefire | Turkish troops advance in Syria | Graham throws support behind Trump's sanctions 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 PompeoUS to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump threat lacks teeth to block impeachment witnesses Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs 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) MoranMcConnell signaling Trump trial to be quick, if it happens Overnight Defense — Presented by Huntington Ingalls Industries — Furor over White House readout of Ukraine call | Dems seize on memo in impeachment push | Senate votes to end Trump emergency | Congress gets briefing on Iran Senate again votes to end Trump emergency declaration on border wall 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 RubioChina's TikTok turns to former lawmakers to help with content moderation policies Hillicon Valley: Warren turns up heat in battle with Facebook | Instagram unveils new data privacy feature | Advocacy group seeks funding to write about Big Tech TikTok adds former lawmakers to help develop content moderation policies 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerPelosi fires back after Trump 'meltdown': 'We have to pray for his health' 5 big wins in US-China trade pact Trump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe MORE (N.Y.) is calling on acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary 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) MenendezHouse to vote on resolution condemning Trump's Syria pullback Rand Paul calls for probe of Democrats over Ukraine letter Senators ask Treasury to probe Brazilian meatpacker with major US footprint MORE (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' Trump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing GOP braces for impeachment brawl 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.