0750 GMT November 13, 2019
In the course of the argument, which was described as tense but generally respectful, Obama vowed to veto legislation being drafted by Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, that would impose the sanctions before the multiparty talks are set to end this summer.
Their face-off occurred behind closed doors at the Hilton in Baltimore, where the two-day Senate Democratic Issues Conference was taking place. The president spoke to the senators for nearly two hours, and several people said he was well received by members of his party as he vowed to remain on the political offensive during the final two years of his presidency.
His exchange with Menendez occurred near the end of a question-and-answer session after Senator Angus King of Maine — an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — asked for an update to the nuclear talks.
According to one of the senators and another person who was present, the president urged lawmakers to stop pursuing sanctions, saying such a move would undermine his authority and could derail the talks. Obama also said that such a provocative action could lead international observers to blame the Americans, rather than the Iranians, if the talks collapsed before the June 30 deadline.
The president said he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others, but he urged the lawmakers to take the long view rather than make a move for short-term political gain, according to the senator. Menendez, who was seated at a table in front of the podium, stood up and said he took “personal offense.”
Menendez told the president that he had worked for more than 20 years to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and had always been focused on the long-term implications. Menendez also warned the president that sanctions could not be imposed quickly if Congress waited to act and the talks failed, according to two people who were present.
“It was a forceful exchange between two strong personalities,” the senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said. “It was not an angry exchange. It was clear, forceful, vigorous.”
White House officials and a Menendez spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday night.
Several senators said the president impressed the group by insisting that he would continue to be aggressive in the face of the Republican-controlled Congress on immigration, Cuba, housing, medical leave and other issues.
One senator said Obama opened his remarks by accepting some responsibility for the drubbing that Democratic lawmakers took in the November elections, but also spoke forcefully about the improving economic numbers and the need for party unity.
“It was a very direct and frank, but not in any way unfriendly or hostile,” a second senator said. “Plainly, we have a path forward through administrative and executive actions, even if there are obstacles in the legislative process.”