A Congress already fractured by deep political divisions and an impeachment standoff is now trying to make sense of a Thursday night U.S. military strike in the Middle East that killed Iran’s top general.
On this, there was some bipartisan agreement: The target of the strike, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the country’s most powerful military leader, was a destructive adversary responsible for killing American soldiers. U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, called Soleimani “one of the world’s worst monsters," while Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Miramar Democrat, said he was a “ruthless killer.”
There was also an immediate concern for the safety of Americans serving in Iraq, where the airstrike took place.
But from there, responses from the Florida delegation reflected the partisan divide in Congress.
Most Republicans swiftly rallied behind President Donald Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani in an airstrike that reportedly targeted Baghdad’s international airport and resulted in six other fatalities. The responses parroted the Trump administration’s explanation for the air assault, blaming Iran for escalating tensions with the United States and accusing Soleimani of supporting destabilizing terror groups throughout the Middle East.
Meanwhile, reaction from Florida Democrats has varied widely. Some have released carefully worded statements that did not explicitly criticize the commander-in-chief. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, called on the Trump administration to “clarify the legal basis” for the strike.
“Reminder that Congress has not authorized war with Iran,” Deutch wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a former Pentagon employee and national security specialist, said “Soleimani met his just end." But the Winter Park Democrat, who represents one of the most purple districts in the country, added she was “concerned that the administration does not have a clear strategy” to deal with the aftermath of this strike.
Others accused Trump of using the military to distract the American people from the ongoing impeachment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faces mounting pressure to hear from new witnesses and consider new evidence in the Senate impeachment trial, including from some Senate Republicans.
As a political gadfly before running for office, Trump repeatedly suggested that President Barack Obama would instigate a war with Iran to generate a bump in the polls.
With this backdrop, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz told CNN that the military action “was taken more in President Trump’s self-interest rather than our national interests.”
Several Florida Democrats have yet to respond to the news, including U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg. On Friday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor issued a statement through a spokesman:
“Trump has escalated America’s involvement in Middle East wars with a direct killing of Iran’s General Soleimani. While Soleimani courted a strike against him with his decades of terrorist attacks across the region, America is not safer today. Iran will retaliate and unleash a new wave of violence."
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican, said of Thursday night’s military campaign: “While I am certainly concerned with escalating violence in the Middle East, I believe we must use whatever force is necessary to protect American lives.”
Few senators defended Trump with more speed and fervor than Sen. Marco Rubio, a hawk who feverishly posted updates on the strike to his Twitter account. On Thursday night, he tweeted that the attack was a warranted response to past Iranian aggressions; Friday morning he suggested it was needed to prevent future attacks on American interests.
Rubio repeatedly swatted down criticism of the president’s foreign policy in Iran, including Trump’s controversial decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Rather, Rubio suggested Trump “exercised admirable restraint” in not attacking Iran sooner.
“I don’t want & have not pushed for war with #Iran,” Rubio tweeted. “But when an adversary decides to use force to attack our Armed Forces @potus has an affirmative duty to defend against & if possible prevent such attacks.”
Other Republicans were almost gleeful in reacting to the successful takeout of a top Iranian general. Rep. Brian Mast posted a meme from the television show the “A Team” in which the group’s cigar-chomping leader, Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith says: “I love it when a plan comes together.” Mast tagged Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Despite these flexes, Republicans also insisted they do not support an all-out war with Iran.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, said he did not anticipate the United States is headed in that direction. If Trump wanted war, Gaetz tweeted, “there were plenty of opportunities.”
“He doesn’t crave war, and nor do I,” Gaetz said.
Some experts suggested that Thursday’s military strike signaled the country is now at war with Iran. Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S.
Iranian state TV carried a statement by Khamenei calling Soleimani “the international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning for the general’s death.
Also, an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani warned Trump of retaliation from Tehran. “Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”
Iranian state television later in a commentary called Trump’s order to kill Soleimani “the biggest miscalculation by the U.S.” in the years since World War II. “The people of the region will no longer allow Americans to stay,” the TV said.
The Defense Department said it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.
The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and five others, including an airport protocol officer, Mohammed Reda, Iraqi officials said.
Trump was vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach when he made the decision to strike. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Trump alerted him to the plans while in South Florida. As of early Friday afternoon, Trump still planned a 5 p.m. campaign rally at a Miami evangelical megachurch.
U.S. Central Command overseeing Iraq operations is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Marines and the 82nd Air Borne Division recently assigned to provide support to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after a recent attack came from CentCom.
The Associated Press contributed to his report.