WASHINGTON — Two New Jersey Democrats have emerged as key voices for their party as lawmakers grapple with President Donald Trump’s confrontation with Iran.
One, Sen. Bob Menendez, is a nearly three-decade member of Congress who is now the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and is an outspoken Iran hawk. The other, Rep. Andy Kim, is a 37-year-old freshman who was previously the Iraq director for the Obama administration’s National Security Council aide.
Both have been among the most prominent Democratic voices in responding to Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his administration’s handling of the fallout, including Tuesday’s night Iranian missile attack on an Iraqi base hosting U.S. military forces.
They, along with other Democrats, have questioned Trump’s judgment and raised concerns that he has opened up another Pandora’s box in the Middle East, even as tensions with Iran seemed to cool somewhat on Wednesday.
Menendez said he had more questions than answers after a Senate briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Defense Secretary Mark Esper; Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
“The questions I went in with, which [were] ... ‘What was the imminent nature of the threat? What was the nature of the target? And what was the intelligence as it relates to eliminating Soleimani alone as the elimination of the whole problem?' I didn’t get answers to those questions,” Menendez said.
The senator pushed then-President Barack Obama to impose tougher sanctions and was one of the few Democrats to oppose the international nuclear deal championed by Obama.
Kim was one of three House members with national security experience who stood alongside the Democratic Caucus chairman, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, at a Wednesday morning news conference where Iran was a prime subject.
Killing Soleimani, one of Iran’s most prominent figures, could hamper its cooperation with the United States in the fight against ISIS and prompt Iran to reestablish its nuclear weapons program, Kim warned, even if all-out war seems less likely.
“Are we safer if Iran will now press on the gas to be able to achieve nuclear weapons?” Kim asked at the morning news conference, shortly before Trump addressed the nation. “Are we safer if this gives Shi’a militia groups greater reason to be able to target our forces and our diplomats in Iraq and the region? So it is not simply a question about how bad a customer Soleimani was. He was obviously a terrible and dangerous person. I often call him the most dangerous person in the Middle East. But it has to be a broader question about our American safety.”
While Democrats have spent much of their energy in the current Congress focused on health care, prescription drugs, gun laws, and impeachment, the Iran crisis has turned national attention to an issue at the core of Kim’s previous work. He was one of a wide group of Democrats who used their national security credentials to help win seats in Trump-friendly districts in 2018; Kim, who lives in Burlington County, is expected to face a tough battle for reelection this fall.
Menendez has been a major Capitol Hill figure on foreign policy for years, but saw that standing threatened when he faced federal corruption charges in 2015 and temporarily relinquished his seat as the top Democratic on the Foreign Relations Committee.
But when his case ended in a 2017 mistrial, Menendez returned to the top post and has resumed his role as an outspoken figure on foreign policy.
Trump has cast the strike on Soleimani as retaliation for recent attacks against Americans. In televised remarks to the country Wednesday he said Soleimani was planning additional actions, though he dropped any mention of “imminent” threats his administration initially cited in justifying the attack.
“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 powerful message to terrorists: If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our people,” Trump said while promising additional sanctions on Iran.
Republicans briefed on the strike offered strong support for Trump, countering Democrats who complained about the lack of answers and specific threat information. Several GOP senators who emerged from the meeting said they were satisfied.