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Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine Discusses U.S. Drone Strike That Killed Iranian Commander

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our top story today - the killing of an Iranian military commander ordered by President Trump.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Last night, at my direction, the United States military successfully executed a flawless precision strike that killed the No. 1 terrorist anywhere in the world.

CORNISH: Major General Qassem Soleimani was at Baghdad Airport when he was hit by U.S. drones.

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TRUMP: Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act.

CORNISH: Trump went on to blame Soleimani for recent attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq and for acts of terror across the Middle East over decades.

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TRUMP: We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

CORNISH: Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded in a harsh statement. He said, quote, "a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood on their hands." The State Department has ordered Americans in Iraq to leave immediately, and the Pentagon said it's sending more than 3,000 troops to the Middle East to bolster security.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Congress, reaction to the killing has been sharply divided. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who praised the operation, acknowledged as much in remarks on the Senate floor.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Predictably enough, in this political environment, the operation that led to Soleimani's death may prove controversial or divisive. I recommend that all senators wait to review the facts and hear from the administration before passing much public judgment.

CORNISH: We're going to speak now with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. He has spoken publicly about the U.S. move, calling it, quote, "a drastic escalation of hostilities," and he's just introduced a war powers resolution to force a vote in Congress before further action against Iran can be taken.

Senator Kaine, welcome to the program.

TIM KAINE: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: We've heard much criticism about Congress not getting full notification about what was going to happen. So when did you first get word of this operation?

KAINE: Audie, I heard about it the same way the - much of the congressional leadership did, through newspaper and press accounts. The president not only did not seek congressional permission. He didn't even notify Congress. And that's why I filed the war powers resolution today. Is General Soleimani a despicable killer? Yes, he was. Is Iran a bad actor? Yes, it is and remains so. But the question is whether the United States should be engaged in a war with Iran, another war in the Middle East that, in my view, would be unnecessary. Under no circumstances should we be in such a war based on the president's whim. That should have to be debated and voted on in Congress.

CORNISH: Now, as the president has said, he believes that he was trying to stop a war not start one. And there's also been reports that there was alleged imminent attack coming from Soleimani. Can you tell us what you've learned, if there was an imminent threat from Iran's military leader posed to the U.S.?

KAINE: There has been no briefing of Congress that I am aware of - and I sit on both the Armed Services and the Foreign Relations Committee - about an imminent threat from General Soleimani. He has been a known quantity and a bad guy and a despicable person for decades, but there's been no briefing about whether there is an imminent threat. The administration has said that they will conduct such a briefing next week, but the constitution is very, very plain that we shouldn't be at war unless there is a vote of Congress.

And that is what my resolution will force - the kind of debate with the facts on the table so that the American public can see it. There may be some of my colleagues who think a war with Iran is a good idea, but we should be having this debate in front of the public and putting it to a vote, not allowing this president or any president to take such a step on his own.

CORNISH: You know, past efforts to claw back authority from the president have failed, right? What do you think is going to bring your colleagues around this time?

KAINE: It has been difficult. Most recently in the Senate, we passed a resolution - it was actually an amendment to the defense authorizing bill - by a 50-40 vote, saying the president could not initiate war against Iran without a vote of Congress. But because that was a motion that required 60 votes, we didn't get to the threshold, but we're getting closer and closer. This...

CORNISH: It also happened with Yemen as well, right?

KAINE: Yes.

CORNISH: And even last year, House Democrats voted to repeal the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force, and they tried to claw back the Iraq War authorization. These seem to be non-starters. What's the reluctance?

KAINE: Audie, when I started this - when I came into the Senate in 2013 as a member of the committee, I could hardly get two or three senators interested in it. The fact that we had 50 votes in the Senate a few months ago, the fact that we passed a resolution in both houses trying to stop the U.S. activity supporting Saudi attacks in Yemen - the number of senators in Congress, men and women who are very, very worried about war being waged by a president with no consultation with Congress, is growing.

And in this particular case, I warned the president two years ago that if he tore up a diplomatic deal with Iran, he would blunder us into a war. And the Pentagon has been advising the White House for well over a year that the maximum pressure campaign of the Trump administration - economic, diplomatic and military - is raising the risk every day to retaliation against Americans. That's what's happening, and it's time for Congress to step in. And the mechanism that I have used will force us to have that debate and vote. Whether the votes will be sufficient or whether President Trump might veto, we'll have to get to that down the road. But at least Congress cannot be silent about this. We have to put everybody on the board.

CORNISH: I want to jump in in the last moment here because you mentioned the maximum pressure campaign on Iran. You've said that the U.S. should do what it recently came - to punish Iran's bad behavior, the U.S. has already instituted tough sanctions that have hurt Iran's economy, haven't brought them to the negotiating table. Final moments - what are the options?

KAINE: Well, the president should try the one thing that he has refused to try. He - remember. It was this president that tore up a diplomatic deal with Iran over its nuclear program that our allies said was working, that the International Atomic Energy Agency said was working and that Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis and General McMaster, the president's original national security team, said was working. The president might want to consider diplomacy rather than blundering us into a war that's not necessary.

CORNISH: That's Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia.

Thank you for your time.

KAINE: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.