News Brief: War Powers, Iran Containment, Royal Duties
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Insulting and demeaning, that's how Republican Mike Lee of Utah described the briefing that lawmakers got yesterday from the White House about that deadly strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
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MIKE LEE: 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.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The worst, according to Lee, because the White House briefers discouraged lawmakers from asking tough questions or from expressing any dissent about the justification for taking out one of Iran's most senior leaders. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the House is going to vote today on a new resolution to limit President Trump's power to deploy military force.
MARTIN: We've got NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us this morning. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
MARTIN: Let's start with this briefing. I mean, it's unusual to see any public dissent among Republicans against the White House. And it wasn't just Mike Lee, it was Rand Paul. What else did they say?
LIASSON: Well, Rand Paul said that the briefers didn't go beyond generalities and stuff you'd read in the newspaper. You heard Mike Lee. He was pretty furious - worst briefing on a military issue in nine years in the Senate.
Lee said he went into the briefing undecided about how he'd vote on a War Powers Act resolution that would stop the president from any more military action against Iran without getting explicit approval from Congress. He came out convinced that he should vote for it. Here's what he said.
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LEE: It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch of government - I don't care whether they're with the CIA, with the Department of Defense or otherwise - to come in and tell us that we can't debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran. It's un-American, it's unconstitutional, and it's wrong.
LIASSON: So Congress has the sole power to declare war. And it has ceded this power over many, many years over and over again to the executive. But there are members of Congress who believe that is a big mistake.
MARTIN: But Mike Lee, though - isn't he someone who's been supportive of executive privilege, especially in light of the allegations against President Trump in the impeachment hearing?
LIASSON: Well, you can be a supporter of the president's and say he didn't do anything that deserves to be impeached and still believe that Congress' war-making role is not being respected in this case.
MARTIN: So Lee and others may be mad that the president is undercutting Congress from the decision-making here on national security issues like the Soleimani strike. But is the president legally compelled to get authorization from Congress here?
LIASSON: Well, look - in all separation of powers clashes, the White House and Congress have two different points of view. President Trump has been pretty contemptuous of Congress in this case. He actually issued a tweet saying this tweet constitutes his responsibility under the War Powers Act to inform Congress of what he was doing.
President Obama and Bush before him operated under a very old 2001 vote - now President Trump is doing the same thing - where Congress authorized military action against the Taliban. And there are some members of Congress who think it's time to update that with an explicit War Powers Act vote by Congress.
MARTIN: So we've got House Speaker Pelosi today holding this vote on a resolution to constrain President Trump's ability to use military force. You reported that Mike Lee now says that he would support something similar. Is that going to have any meaningful effect?
LIASSON: Well, I think that the War Powers resolution will pass the House, but you need four Republicans to pass it in the Senate. And even if you have Mike Lee and Rand Paul, you'd still need two more. So probably, it wouldn't pass the Senate, so it doesn't have a practical effect. But it also might not be necessary because yesterday in President Trump's remarks, it sounded like he was willing and eager to accept the off-ramp that Iran seemed to be offering him because he doesn't want to escalate this.
MARTIN: Meanwhile, just briefly, impeachment trial moves forward. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he's ready to start the Senate trial. Is Nancy Pelosi going to send over the articles of impeachment?
LIASSON: Yes, it sounds like she will send them over. Mitch McConnell now says he has the votes to not discuss any witnesses until after the opening arguments. And now we're just waiting for Nancy Pelosi to send those articles over from the House.
MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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MARTIN: OK. So President Trump now wants help from U.S. allies in containing Iran.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime. Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer. It will not be allowed to go forward.
GREENE: But after dropping out of the Iran nuclear deal and killing Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, American allies might not be so eager to come to President Trump's aid. And this leaves allies in the Middle East in a particularly difficult spot, including Saudi Arabia.
We know that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was trying to direct some kind of back-channel effort to ease tensions in the Gulf, but that was before the U.S. killed Soleimani in a drone strike on Iraqi soil.
MARTIN: NPR's Jackie Northam has been following all this and joins us now this morning. Hi, Jackie.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: OK. First off, let's look at this from the Saudi perspective. Is Saudi Arabia concerned that it might come under attack by Iran?
NORTHAM: Well, if the conflict between the U.S. and Iran boils up again and escalates significantly, then Iran could start looking at countries that are aligned with the U.S. or provide bases or other assistance to the U.S. as potential targets. And Saudi Arabia is one of those countries. You know, this is a huge concern for the kingdom. Back in September, Saudi Arabia's vulnerabilities were laid bare after an attack on Saudi Aramco. The main oil installation was hit by cruise missiles...
NORTHAM: ...And drones. And the attack was blamed on Iran. Now, it was after that attack that this effort by Saudi Arabia to open a dialogue with Iran started to gain some currency, in part because it became clear to Riyadh that Washington didn't have the kingdom's back - because there was no response to the Aramco attack by the Trump administration.
MARTIN: So what did that effort look like, the Saudi effort to kind of open a door with Iran?
NORTHAM: Right. I spoke with several analysts that, you know, closely follow developments in the Gulf. And they told me that after the Aramco attack, Saudi Arabia decided to start easing the confrontation with Iran, which is its regional rival. And they start probing the idea of a dialogue.
Now, Rachel, this Saudi effort was very, very much in its earliest days. You know, there was no open communication channels, and it was being mediated by other nations, including Pakistan and Iraq. In fact, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said that Soleimani was bringing a message from Iran for the Saudis on the day he was killed. Now, we don't know what was in that message. But you know, administration officials have dismissed any notion that Soleimani was on a diplomatic mission.
MARTIN: I mean, what about Iran? Would it be open to talks with Saudi Arabia?
NORTHAM: Well, the analysts I spoke with said, yeah, maybe. It would be a way for Iran to manage relations with Saudi Arabia. In other words, it would mean that a major force that had been pushing the Trump administration to pursue economic warfare and economic sanctions against Iran would be weakened. But at the same time, Saudi Arabia would likely face pressure from the Trump administration to support its policy of maximum pressure on Iran. It would be hard for Saudi Arabia to say no.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Jackie Northam for us this morning on that angle of the story. Thanks, Jackie. We appreciate it.
NORTHAM: Many thanks.
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MARTIN: There was big news out of the U.K. yesterday.
GREENE: Yes. Yes, there was.
MARTIN: Even if you do not obsess about the royals or even watch "The Crown," this is a huge deal.
GREENE: I know. It feels crazy to even say it. But Meghan Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, want out. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex dropped this bombshell announcement yesterday, saying they intend to step back as senior members of the royal family and work to become financially independent. So I think we can cue the Megxit (ph) jokes.
MARTIN: Yeah. You had to say it, not me...
So to help explain what this means, we turn to NPR's occasional royals correspondent Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, this is massive. I'm at a loss for words.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah, it is. It is. Everybody's talking about it. It knocked the Iran story that you've just been talking about right off the front pages. Here a couple of tabloid headlines from this morning - The Sun - "Civil War As Harry & Meg Quit The Royals"; The Daily Mirror - "They Didn't Even Tell The Queen."
MARTIN: Right. The queen...
MARTIN: ...They did not give the queen a heads-up?
LANGFITT: Apparently not. From everything that we're hearing, the palace is, quote, "disappointed." That's what sources are saying. And the palace put out a statement last night saying, discussions with the couple are at early stages, which sort of sounds like almost a foreign policy statement.
LANGFITT: And here's the quote - "we understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues and will take time to work through."
MARTIN: Sounds like the queen might not be so happy about this.
LANGFITT: Yeah. One is not pleased by this, clearly.
MARTIN: Yeah. So what was the announcement? What are they going to do?
LANGFITT: So the details seem to be this. They would split their time between the U.K. and North America. The assumption is they're talking about Canada, which is a commonwealth country. They're going to create a new charity. And the big thing, I think, is they're not going to be doing all the ribbon-cutting, hospital-visiting or playing sort of by the rules of the British tabloid press, which has lots of access - at least in terms of, like, pooled reports.
And they also say they want to earn a professional income, but it's not clear what they mean by that. You know, Harry gets a lot of money from Prince Charles, his father's estates out in Cornwall. And Markle was a successful actress, but she's not expected to return to TV. Some people are joking on Twitter that she could, in the end, play herself in the final season of "The Crown."
MARTIN: (Laughter) Right, right - which I watch obsessively. It was interesting, though. I did see that they've got a website already up...
LANGFITT: They do.
MARTIN: ...Meghan and Harry. And I got trapped in that rabbit hole last night looking at their explanation for how they would try to separate financially. It is super complicated, but at least they're trying to be transparent. I mean, we have to address the fact that Meghan Markle - it has been a tough road, man. I mean, she has had a horrible time.
LANGFITT: It is. And she's - they've been clearly unhappy. And Harry has never liked this role. If you just watch him, he's a very personable guy and very popular here. But she was targeted by the British tabloids. The couple actually, last year, sued one of the tabloids for invasion of privacy for printing a letter that she wrote to her estranged father. And then she also - ITV, the television station here in Britain, talked about how the scrutiny had been hard to take. And this is what she said.
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MEGHAN: When I first met my now-husband, my friends were really happy because I was so happy. But my British friend said to me, I'm sure he's great, but you shouldn't do it because the British tabloids will destroy your life. I didn't get it.
MARTIN: I mean, she gets it now - clearly.
MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London with this big announcement out of the U.K. Meghan Markle, Prince Harry have decided to - in part, at least - separate themselves from the royal family.
Frank, thanks as always. We appreciate it.
LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.