Trump thumbs his nose at Congress over war powers

An ‘absurd’ briefing on Iran calls out for a war powers resolution.

Senator Rand Paul is one of at least two Republicans on Capitol Hill who found Trump administration officials' explanation for the Iranian strike unconvincing.
Senator Rand Paul is one of at least two Republicans on Capitol Hill who found Trump administration officials' explanation for the Iranian strike unconvincing.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Insulting and demeaning.” “Absurd.”

Those are the words Republican senators used to describe the closed-door briefing from Trump administration officials on last week’s military attack against a top Iranian general, a rash action that brought the United States to the brink of another ruinous war in the Middle East.

Talk, though, is cheap. With the Democrat-led House having passed a resolution Thursday curbing the president’s ability to blunder into a war with Iran, it’s time for GOP senators to stand up for national security and join them.

The attack last week killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary intelligence service. Soleimani was despicable. But assassinating him was an unprecedented unilateral move, even in the post-9/11 era. Intentionally killing a military officer of a sovereign state is a much more drastic act than attacking a terrorist: The killing could easily be viewed as a declaration of war, but without approval from Congress.

President Trump says the killing was necessary to prevent imminent attacks against Americans, a contention that is difficult to accept, both because the president misleads the public habitually and because it doesn’t really make a lot of sense on its face. It’s not as if Soleimani himself was going to shoot American troops, and he’s already been replaced.


That’s where Wednesday’s briefing came in — or where it was supposed to come in. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were expected to explain to members of Congress why the administration acted, and on what legal basis.

In a functioning constitutional system, the administration would have taken that briefing seriously, fearful that if they couldn’t convince members of Congress, there could be consequences. Congress has a variety of mechanisms to place limits on American military actions, including through the budget and the 1973 War Powers Act.


Instead, according to senators, the administration officials made a mockery of the briefing. Mike Lee, a GOP senator from Utah, said it was “the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue.” He later told National Public Radio that the Trump officials refused to commit to any limits at all on the president’s war-making powers — or to seeking authorization before assassinating a head of state. The officials scolded Congress for even publicly debating whether the attack was justified, which Lee called “demeaning to the process ordained by the Constitution.”

The administration also made the claim that the 2002 authorization for the Iraq War provided legal authorization for the strike. The Iraq War was launched against former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iran’s sworn enemy. The argument that Trump can use it to justify the killing of an Iranian general who was physically located in Iraq at the time of the attack is, as Kentucky Republican Rand Paul put it, absurd.

“I see no way in the world you could logically argue that an authorization to have war with Saddam Hussein has anything to with having war with people currently in Iraq,” Paul said after the briefing.

But who can really blame the Trump administration for assuming it can get away with blowing off Congress and barely trying to concoct a legal rationale? Congress has let its oversight authority over military and foreign affairs erode over decades, particularly those since the Sept. 11 attacks. It’s hard to take seriously a watchdog that has shown quite clearly that it has forgotten how to bite.


Now the country confronts the result: an administration that has no compunction making reckless attacks and so little reason to fear Congress that it could hold a briefing like Wednesday’s. Sadly, Lee and Paul are outliers; most elected officials in their party seem terrified of holding the administration accountable.

Next week, the Senate may vote on a war powers resolution that would constrain the president from plunging the country into war. Lee and Paul say they’ll support that resolution. The rest of the GOP shouldn’t view this as a vote on Iran. It’s a vote on the United States. If Congress keeps allowing the White House to walk all over it, why would any future Oval Office occupant bother to respect the constitutional limits on presidential power? Why not just start a war alone?