Republican members of Congress like Elise Stefanik face many dilemmas in dealing with and reacting to President Trump. For Stefanik, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, one of those dilemmas has been trying to support Trump and, at the same time, support the country’s intelligence services.
Her solution seems to be to point out how excellent the intelligence services are when their conclusions support Trump’s behavior and to ignore them when they contradict Trump.
But this becomes a difficult balancing act, as so many things do when dealing with a mercurial president. Constituents witnessed this tricky balance recently when Stefanik, while defending Trump’s right to take military action against Iran, praised the intelligence he was receiving.
“The president had a unique vantage point in terms of advice from military leadership, in terms of intelligence that is incredibly precise that congressional leaders do not have. I support the president’s decision,” Stefanik said.
Her statement was precipitated by Trump’s decision to launch, then abort, a missile strike on Iran. We’re glad that, as a well-informed member of the Intelligence Committee, Stefanik believes the president is receiving “incredibly precise” intelligence.
Back at the end of January, however, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, put out the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” which includes conclusions that contradict Trump at every turn.
“We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” that report says.
The report says Iran has been abiding by the nuclear deal worked out by the Obama administration with an international coalition, including China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom. It also says Iran’s leaders were threatening to break the terms of the deal unless they could realize the economic benefits it promised.
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The reason Iran wasn’t realizing those benefits in January and still isn’t is because Trump pulled out of the Iran deal.
Trump has attacked his own intelligence services for many things, including for saying the Iran nuclear deal was working. Since pulling out, he has tightened sanctions on Iran, engaging in a back and forth that brought him to the brink of bombing the country. That context makes it difficult for people like Stefanik, who try to justify Trump’s aggression based on intelligence reports.
When a president repeatedly undermines the credibility of his intelligence services, it’s hard for a congresswoman to then say with a straight face that he is doing the right thing, based on “intelligence that is incredibly precise.”
All of this matters, because presidents use intelligence for making consequential decisions, like launching air strikes on other countries. The intelligence must, therefore, be unbiased. We never want to repeat our experience with the invasion of Iraq, when the country realized, too late, that the decision to invade was based on bogus intelligence.
We also need to get back to the constitutional requirement that military action be a joint decision of the president and Congress.
Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump have justified various military actions with the use of force authorization passed by Congress shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. That authorizations starts with the following:
“The president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons …. “
You can tie that 18-year-old authorization to our continued military presence in Afghanistan, but it does not cover starting a war with Iran, and Stefanik knows it. We need her to stand up for Congress, the Constitution and the intelligence services against warmongering. We’ve got more chaos than we can handle right now on the home front. The country will be shattered if we get pulled into another war.