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Trump Iran address comes as congressional plans on War Powers in flux

Trump threatens more sanctions against Iran as he makes move to deescalate tensions

President Donald Trump is seen on a television in the House Subway tunnel below the U.S. Capitol as he speaks to the nation about tensions with Iran. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump is seen on a television in the House Subway tunnel below the U.S. Capitol as he speaks to the nation about tensions with Iran. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump on Wednesday signaled a cooling of tensions with Tehran after it struck U.S. military targets inside Iraq, saying in a national address that “Iran appears to be standing down.”

He called that “a good thing for all parties concerned and for the world.”

He reported only “minimal damage” and no casualties at the military bases struck by Iranian missiles, but warned the government in Tehran that the U.S. military remains “ready for anything.”

After trading military strikes with Iran, Trump called on its government to return to the negotiating table with the U.S. in pursuit of a new deal that “makes the world’s a far and more peaceful place.”

“We must also make a deal that allows Iran to thrive and prosper, and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential,” Trump said, sounding a rare diplomatic tone. “Iran can be a great country.”

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The de-escalation came at a time it is unclear of the status of various congressional attempts to more clearly delineate the legislative branch’s role in a conflict with Iran. 

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Democrats are having ongoing discussions about the language of a war powers resolution and declined to say whether a vote on the measure was still anticipated this week.

The House will act “as soon as we believe it is prepared to move forward,” the Maryland Democrat said, noting he expects that will be “sooner rather than later.”

Democrats are also still discussing the Progressive Caucus’s request to bring up two other measures along with the war powers resolution: legislation from California Rep. Ro Khanna to prohibit funding for offensive military force in or against Iran without congressional authorization and a measure from Lee repealing the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force.

“They’ve already been fully vetted by the House and supported by the House,” Hoyer said, referring to those proposals being passed as amendments to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The House will certainly bring those measures forward “at some point” given that they had already passed with bipartisan majorities, Hoyer said, but he did not specifically commit to or rule out packaging them with or moving them alongside the war powers resolution.

Trump began his remarks about 30 minutes late and started by saying he would take steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon even as he tried to deescalate the volatile situation.

Minutes before he spoke came a preview of his message from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he spoke with Trump on Tuesday evening after the Iranian attack.

“These strikes thankfully did not kill or wound Americans, but they demonstrate the significant progress Iran has made over the last decade in building a large, long-range, and accurate ballistic missile force,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor. 

“I believe the president wants to avoid conflict or needless loss of life, but is rightly prepared to protect American lives and interests,” McConnell added. 

Both sides in the conflict sent signals after the missile strikes Tuesday they want to cool tensions and avoid war.

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

Iran struck at two U.S. military facilities in Iraq overnight as cable television networks in the United States played footage throughout Tuesday evening of Iranian missiles on their way to the bases. Those strikes, which Senate Judiciary Chairman and Trump ally Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called an “act of war,” were Tehran’s response to a Trump-ordered strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s lethal Quds Force.

The president, flanked by uniformed military commanders and members of his Cabinet in the White House’s Grand Foyer on Wednesday, called Soleimani a “ruthless terrorist” as he continued his administration’s argument that he had ample legal authorities to order the strike. Democrats disagree, and the House could vote soon on a measure meant to limit his war-making powers vis a vis Iran.

Trump said the Quds commander was responsible for many attacks “across the region,” including ones on U.S. military personnel and other Americans. “In recent days, he was planning new attacks on American targets,” Trump said. “But we stopped him.

Trump pinned a violent protest that caused damage to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad squarely on the Quds leader, saying: “Soleimani’s hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood.”

“He should have been terminated long ago. By removing Soleimani, we have sent a valuable message to terrorists: If you value your life, you will not threaten the lives of our people,” Trump said, adding his team continues to examine options to punish Iran for its behavior.

One is additional sanctions, which he says will be slapped on Tehran for things like ship seizures and other moves.

“Iran must end its nuclear ambitious and end its support of terrorism Notably, he called on America’s European allies to “break away” from the nuclear accord with Iran that was mostly negotiated by the Obama administration and from which he withdrew the United States.

The president also urged NATO to take a larger role in trying to foster peace in the always turbulent and bloody Middle East. 

Asked Tuesday if Trump felt responsible for U.S. military personnel being put at risk after the Soleimani assassination, a senior White House official responded “That’s petty” and refused to answer the question.

Democratic lawmakers and the party’s presidential candidates continue to express concern about the situation with Tehran, warning the two countries could be on the brink of a major shooting war — just the kind of protracted Middle East conflict candidate Trump vowed to end and avoid.

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois on Wednesday accused Trump of entering office “hellbent on a confrontation with Iran.”

“He has it now,” Durbin told CNN. “And the question is whether he wants to escalate it into a war. … It is time for us to step back and measure exactly what our goal is at this moment. If we are looking for stability in the Middle East, if we are trying to reduce terrorism by Iran and other countries, let us do it thoughtfully, not impulsively.”

The president — who tweeted after the Iranian strikes that “All is well!” —and his top aides have said he possessed ample legal authority to take out what they have collectively dubbed a “terrorist ringleader” and a “terrorist mastermind.”

“In our case it was retaliation,” Trump said in the Oval Office alongside his Greek counterpart on Tuesday. “He was a monster. And he’s no longer a monster. He’s dead.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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