At­tack puts pres­i­dent’s pow­ers to test

Law­mak­ers to de­bate Trump’s ‘vi­tal na­tional se­cu­rity’ claim


Pres­i­dent Trump told Congress on Sun­day that he was ex­er­cis­ing com­man­der-in-chief pow­ers when he or­dered strikes on Syria’s chem­i­cal weapons ca­pa­bil­ity, in­sist­ing the ac­tion on Satur­day was “in the vi­tal na­tional se­cu­rity” in­ter­ests of the U.S.

The claim — which is dif­fer­ent from the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials gave last week — is likely to be quickly tested on Capi­tol Hill, where sen­a­tors were pre­par­ing to de­bate pres­i­den­tial war pow­ers be­fore the strikes.

Democrats and Repub­li­cans say it’s time to up­date the 2001 Au­tho­riza­tion for the Use of Mil­i­tary Force that granted Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush the power to go af­ter al Qaeda and other in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions. That AUMF, as it’s known in Wash­ing­ton-speak, has been stretched to jus­tify U.S. mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in So­ma­lia, Ye­men, the Philip­pines, Libya and the bat­tle against the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria.

But go­ing af­ter the As­sad regime, which is not an in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, crosses lines that Congress will closely scru­ti­nize.

Mr. Trump as­serted a broad power in a let­ter to law­mak­ers.

“I acted pur­suant to my con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity to con­duct for­eign re­la­tions and as com­man­der in chief and chief ex­ec­u­tive and in the vi­tal na­tional se­cu­rity and for­eign pol­icy in­ter­ests of the United States to pro­mote the sta­bil­ity of the re­gion, to de­ter the use and

pro­lif­er­a­tion of chem­i­cal weapons, and to avert a wors­en­ing of the re­gion’s cur­rent hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe,” he said.

He said he re­served the right to “take ad­di­tional ac­tion, as nec­es­sary and ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Some Democrats say Mr. Trump al­ready has gone too far.

“It is Congress, not the pres­i­dent, which has the con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity for mak­ing war,” Sen. Bernard San­ders of Ver­mont said af­ter the strikes, lead­ing a charge from a num­ber of lib­eral mem­bers of Congress who said the pres­i­dent needed to be brought to heel.

Sen. Ed­ward J. Markey, Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat, called the mil­i­tary move “nei­ther con­sti­tu­tional nor wise.”

But most other law­mak­ers — in­clud­ing many Democrats — stood by Mr. Trump, for now, say­ing the limited na­ture of the strikes can prob­a­bly be jus­ti­fied, but any­thing fur­ther will re­quire Congress to be­come in­volved.

“Cer­tainly if he wishes to go any fur­ther he does need to work with Congress,” Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Repub­li­can, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” pro­gram. “The airstrikes, I’m com­fort­able at this point with that. But as many of my col­leagues have also stated we need a new AUMF. We need to ad­dress this sit­u­a­tion. And the pres­i­dent does need to come to Congress, and we need to have those dis­cus­sions.”

The Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee was slated to be­gin de­bat­ing a new AUMF to re­place the 2001 au­tho­riza­tion as early as this week. Law­mak­ers were push­ing to have a draft version ready for dis­cus­sion, with the pos­si­bil­ity of a com­mit­tee vote next week.

Pres­i­dents have long ex­er­cised pow­ers to at­tack in re­tal­i­a­tion for at­tacks on U.S. in­ter­ests and have even claimed the abil­ity to launch a pre-emp­tive strike to head off such an at­tack on U.S. in­ter­ests. But Mr. Trump’s ex­pan­sive claim of an abil­ity to at­tack when he deems a “vi­tal” in­ter­est at stake — with­out any im­me­di­ate threat to the U.S. — is likely to dom­i­nate the de­bate.

Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters this time is the chang­ing na­ture of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­fense.

Tes­ti­fy­ing to the Se­nate last week, CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo — who is also a Har­vard-trained lawyer — said Mr. Trump had power to con­duct the strike un­der the 2001 AUMF.

Mr. Pom­peo said that AUMF cov­ered airstrikes like the one Satur­day but would not cover an ex­pan­sive com­bat com­mit­ment in Syria.

Hours af­ter the strikes, though, De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis said Mr. Trump au­tho­rized the strikes “as our com­man­der in chief.”

“Un­der the Ar­ti­cle II of the Constitution, we be­lieve the pres­i­dent has ev­ery rea­son to de­fend vi­tal Amer­i­can in­ter­ests, and that is what he did tonight,” Mr. Mat­tis said.

“What’s to stop him from start­ing a bomb­ing cam­paign against Iran or North Korea or some other na­tion and say­ing, ‘Well, I think it’s in the na­tional in­ter­est?’” Sen. Tim Kaine, the 2016 Demo­cratic vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, told CBS’s “Face the Na­tion” pro­gram.

“It’s il­le­gal be­cause he didn’t come and ask per­mis­sion.”

The Constitution makes the pres­i­dent the com­man­der in chief but grants Congress the power to de­clare war. There has al­ways been ten­sion be­tween those two roles.

While they weren’t asked for ap­proval, some key mem­bers of Congress were at least no­ti­fied. Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence made phone calls to con­gres­sional lead­ers just ahead of Mr. Trump’s tele­vised an­nounce­ment Fri­day night.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House Per­ma­nent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence, said he was briefed last week by the CIA di­rec­tor about the ev­i­dence demon­strat­ing that the Syr­ian regime was be­hind the chem­i­cal weapons at­tack that pro­voked Mr. Trump’s re­sponse.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the sec­on­drank­ing Demo­crat in the up­per cham­ber, said he was called by White House

Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Mr. Durbin, Illi­nois Demo­crat, said the re­ac­tion to Mr. Trump’s strike was in­struc­tive.

In 2013, when the As­sad regime first used chem­i­cal weapons, Pres­i­dent Obama ini­tially con­cluded that he had the abil­ity to strike Syria, just as Mr. Trump claims. But Mr. Obama rethought that po­si­tion and ended up go­ing to Congress for per­mis­sion.

The Demo­crat-con­trolled Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee backed Mr. Obama, but he met with re­sis­tance else­where on Capi­tol Hill. The is­sue faded af­ter a deal was struck — with Rus­sia act­ing as guar­an­tor — for Syria to give up its chem­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Mr. Trump said last week that the strikes were meant to en­force Mr. Obama’s orig­i­nal “red line” in Syria and to hold Rus­sia ac­count­able for fail­ing in that 2013 prom­ise to dis­man­tle Syria’s chem­i­cal weapons pro­gram.

Mr. Durbin said he backed Mr.

Obama’s orig­i­nal plans to strike in 2013 but added that Mr. Trump’s de­ci­sion last week “still raises the con­sti­tu­tional ques­tion of his au­thor­ity to uni­lat­er­ally at­tack an­other na­tion with­out con­gres­sional au­tho­riza­tion.”

“It is time for Congress and the Amer­i­can peo­ple to en­gage in a na­tional de­bate about that au­tho­riza­tion to use mil­i­tary force in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Ye­men,” he said.

Across the At­lantic, the United King­dom was start­ing its own de­bate af­ter polling showed the pub­lic op­posed Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s de­ci­sion to join the U.S. and France in the strikes.

Op­po­si­tion leader Jeremy Cor­byn called the mil­i­tary ac­tion “legally de­bat­able” and said Par­lia­ment must pass leg­is­la­tion to ex­pand scru­tiny of the gov­ern­ment’s mil­i­tary ac­tions.

Mrs. May is slated to ad­dress Par­lia­ment on Mon­day.


CON­SE­QUENCE: Satel­lite im­ages show the Barzah Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter in Syria on Fri­day (top) and on Sun­day. The pa­ram­e­ters of pres­i­den­tial pow­ers for such a strike are far from clear. Story, A6.

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