WASHINGTON ― The vanishing role of Congress in authorizing military force is nothing new. It’s a story that’s played out over decades with overly broad Authorizations for Use of Military Force and liberal interpretations of the president’s powers to conduct war. But if the reaction from a sample of lawmakers this week to President Donald Trump’s latest strike on Syria is any indication, Congress has very little concern ― or knowledge ― about the chief executive’s authority to pre-emptively attack a nation.
HuffPost asked more than 30 lawmakers about the Trump administration’s legal justification for bombing Syria, and while there isn’t a strictly correct answer, it’s clear from those interviews and other reactions since the strike that few lawmakers are concerning themselves with whether the president really has this authority. It’s just not a question they’re asking, despite a clear shift in the president’s rationale for conducting unauthorized war.
The Trump administration sent Congress a letter on Sunday claiming it was in the “vital national security and foreign policy interests of the United States” to conduct the strike, which followed a suspected chemical weapons attack inside Syria by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Trump administration seems to believe the president has the authority to strike a country, without congressional approval, under the powers granted to the office in the Constitution ― just as long as it can say such actions are in our national interests.
That was exactly the answer administration officials ― including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and acting Secretary of State John Sullivan ― gave lawmakers on Tuesday during a private briefing for all House members, according to lawmakers who attended the session.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who has been vocal about his concerns regarding unauthorized war, said he asked what their legal justification was for the strikes. And, according to Massie, the officials said Trump had the authority under Article II of the Constitution, which outlines in the president’s broad powers as commander-in-chief.
But As Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) brought up to HuffPost, that ignores what’s said in Article I: that only Congress has the power to declare war. (Article II also makes clear that the president derives power to direct the military after there has been a declaration, not before.)
Still, the vast majority of lawmakers HuffPost talked to had no issue with the president striking Syria without a new AUMF. And before the briefing, several lawmakers seemed to have little idea under what authority the president claimed for bombing Syria. Some told HuffPost that it was the 2001 AUMF, which Congress quickly passed to authorize military action against anyone associated with the 9/11 attacks, that justified the president’s actions.
“Every president since post-9/11 has had the authorization to make these types of surgical, targeted strikes,” Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) told HuffPost, saying she was referring to the 2001 AUMF.
“We have the legal justification right now under the current AUMF,” Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) said.
And Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) ― the daughter of Dick Cheney, who was vice president when that AUMF was enacted ― said Friday’s actions were lawful because of it. “I don’t think we ought to just assume that because a certain amount of time has passed, that you’ve got to pass new legislation,” Cheney said.
In a letter to Congress explaining his justification on Sunday ― which very few of the lawmakers interviewed by HuffPost seemed to have read ― Trump did not mention the 2001 AUMF. While the U.S. has routinely used that measure to justify actions against Islamic State fighters in Syria, these strikes were aimed at sending a message to Assad, who has no apparent connection to 9/11 and whose forces also have been fighting ISIS inside Syria.
Trump mentions in the letter that he is providing the report to keep Congress informed, “consistent with the War Powers Resolution.” But according to Massie, the administration officials didn’t mention that resolution when they were asked about the legal justification.
The War Powers Resolution allows the president to use military force after an attack on the U.S., or to strike when the country is in “imminent” danger. Neither of those conditions seem to apply in the case of Syria.
Almost exactly a year ago, Trump ordered a similar bombing campaign against Syria, and because it was also a one-time attack, no one seemed to care about his authorization for that order, either.
Of course, none of this focuses on how the White House views the strikes. Trump justified the attacks by noting his inherent authority as commander-in-chief ― a role that is not clearly defined in the Constitution but has certainly expanded over the course of time.
Some lawmakers acknowledge that Congress has abdicated its responsibilities to authorize military action ― “missing in action” was how California Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee (the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 AUMF) and Adam Schiff put it. But most interviewed by HuffPost seemed perfectly comfortable with the president claiming some nebulous authority to use the military any way he sees fit.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told HuffPost that the president has the “absolute authority” to make war. And if Congress doesn’t like what the president is doing, then Congress could defund those military actions.
Asked if the president had the authority to bomb London if he decided it was in the national interest, King said the president could ― and there were plenty of lawmakers who implicitly agreed.
As Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas) told HuffPost, “If he deems it right and it’s in the best concerns, I support him on it.”
Throughout the vast majority of these interviews ― which you can listen to in their entirety below ― it was clear most of the lawmakers did not have a level of familiarity with these issues or didn’t want to dwell on the matter.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Trump used his “Article II” authorities for this strike, suggesting he thinks those powers allow for military actions simply if in the view of the president it’s in the nation’s interests.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that the administration felt it was on “firm footing” with its legal justification for the Syria strikes.
Pressed on how — presidential authority? The 2001 AUMF? — McConnell just walked away.
The precedent of virtually unlimited war-making power for the president has been taking hold for some time, but it’s becoming even more explicit under Trump.
Certainly, there still are lawmakers who are uncomfortable with the president using the military any way he sees fit ― such as Massie and a small group of Constitutional conservatives. And a number of Democrats are uneasy with the idea, too.
“That justification allows the president to wage war anywhere, anytime, any place that he might want to, simply saying it’s in the national security interest,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said. “We can’t allow that. We simply cannot allow that to happen, with this president or any other president.”
But Democrats like Garamendi are in the minority in Congress. And what’s most notable about the question of the legal justification of striking Syria isn’t that there are a few voices on either side who are uncomfortable with the president conducting war anytime he wants to; what’s most notable is how many lawmakers are amenable to the idea.
This story has been updated with comment from McConnell. Nicholas Offenberg contributed reporting.