WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump said on Monday he is not ruling out missile strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria.
If he does take military action, he’ll be doing so without constitutionally required approval by Congress.
It’s Congress’ job to authorize any sustained U.S. military action. The problem is that lawmakers have been largely ignoring this mandate since 2001, when they passed a sweeping authorization for use of military force, or AUMF, allowing President George W. Bush to attack anyone connected to al Qaeda, anywhere, at any time.
That AUMF never expired. For years, President Barack Obama stretched its limits by arguing it allowed him to take military action against the Islamic State, since the terror group is an offshoot of al Qaeda. Now, if Trump were to argue he could use the Iraq War-era authorization to bomb Syrian government targets, he would have to make the case that it’s related to al Qaeda, which it is not.
The prospect of Trump unilaterally taking military action is troubling to lawmakers in both parties who say that it’s time to finally get rid of the 2001 AUMF and pass a new one with more narrowly tailored limits on scope, duration and costs of military action. They say the old AUMF is effectively a blank check for endless war.
“The use of chemical weapons absolutely requires a response from the United States,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said in a statement. “But if that response is going to include military force, the president of the United States should come to Congress and ask for authorization before military force is used.”
“President Trump has to come to Congress for approval if he wants to take further U.S. military action,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement. “A year since the administration’s last airstrikes in Syria, we know there is a secret memo that details how the Trump administration views its power to take military action without consulting Congress. It’s past time for the administration to share its Syria strategy with the public and release that memo before it’s used to justify more airstrikes or new wars.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) tweeted about it, too.
A mix of rank-and-file lawmakers has been urging party leaders for years to get moving on a new AUMF, but nothing has happened. Most members of Congress simply don’t want to take a tough vote on authorizing war.
It would incredibly difficult to justify using the 2001 AUMF for military action against the Assad government. The Trump administration hasn’t even tried to do it. When Trump directed strikes on a Syrian government airbase in April 2017 ― the first-ever direct military strike by the U.S. against Assad’s regime ― the administration claimed he had that authority under his presidential powers because it was limited military action, not because of the Iraq War-era AUMF.
A fresh round of missile strikes in Syria makes this something different than a limited single engagement. And lawyers at the nonpartisan Protect Democracy say it would likely lead to larger and ongoing conflicts, which sounds a lot more like a war than a surgical attack.
That’s what’s at the heart of lawmakers’ concerns with Trump acting without first getting their approval.
“Before President Trump even considers taking the United States down a path of unilateral military action, the American people need answers. What does this administration hope to accomplish? What’s the end game?” asked Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “Are we moving from fighting ISIS to fighting Assad outright? Or are we withdrawing our troops and airpower from the region? In the space of a few days, the president has said both.”
Trump said Monday that he’ll make his decision in the next 24 to 48 hours on how to respond to the latest suspected use of chemical weapons by Assad, which reportedly killed at least 49 people in a Damascus suburb.
“Nothing’s off the table,” Trump told reporters.