But even Trump’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill said they are anxious to see the president’s next step in the region, and whether that will mean more military actions and the possibility of heightened tensions not just with Syria but across the globe.
On Thursday night, Trump ordered a pair of Navy ships to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at a military airfield in Homs. Defense department officials said that was the launch site for the chemical weapons attack which killed at least 70 Syrians, including numerous children.
Syrian officials said at least six people were killed in the U.S. attack. Trump called the move “vital (to the) national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
Prominent lawmakers from both parties came out in support of the action in the hours after the launch, calling it a measured but strong response to the Syrian atrocities.
“This was not only an important message to Assad, but also to our allies about what this administration is going to be like,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “I thought it was very reassuring.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said he believes “the signal is as important as the actual damage that was done. This was in response to what was by any measure war crimes, the slaughter of innocent men women and children.”
My statement on the missile strike against Syria: https://t.co/boU5hdVB4IFellow committee member Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said the chemical weapons attack was “a clear violation of international law” and agreed that “the Syrian regime must be held accountable for this horrific act.”
— Joni Ernst (@SenJoniErnst) April 7, 2017
But she and fellow Democrats also warned that further action would require more than just White House approval.
“Expanded military intervention in Syria requires action by Congress,” she said. “If President Trump expects such an authorization, he owes the American people an explanation of his strategy to bring an end to the violence in Syria. We should not escalate this conflict without clear goals and a plan to achieve them.”
McConnell said he thinks that the Thursday airfield strike was an isolated event, in response to the chemical weapons attack, and not related to a larger U.S. intervention into the country.
The Defense Department already has around 500 U.S. troops in Syria, but working on assistance and logistics efforts connected to the fight against the Islamic State group, not the Syrian civil war.
But the issue of just how much military action the president can authorize in Syria, in nearby Iraq or around the globe in the so-called “war on terror” remains vexing for many in Congress.
Since President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes against ISIS fighters in Iraq in August 2014, members of Congress have both called for a new authorization of military force to cover military missions in the region and failed to make any progress on a new defense framework.
Obama sent a draft authorization to Capitol Hill in 2015, but that plan was deemed too restrictive by conservatives and too broad by anti-war legislators. Since then, the White House has operated under a murky legal area established in a pair of force authorizations passed in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a longtime advocate for a new AUMF, said in a statement after the attacks that Trump’s decision to attack Syria was “unlawful” without congressional approval.
“President Trump has launched a military strike against Syria without a vote of Congress,” he said. “The Constitution says war must be declared by Congress.”
Members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees were informed of the plans for the missile strikes before the attack, congressional officials confirmed Friday.
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., stopped short of Kaine’s criticism of Trump but said that “the administration is going to have to set out the legal justification for tonight’s action and any future military operations against the Assad regime as part of its consultations with Congress.”
Tonight's airstrikes will not displace Assad, but may deter chem weapon use. Actions in Syria still not authorized by Congress. Need a vote: pic.twitter.com/UiSNCb8p6QHouse Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she wants the House to return from its scheduled two-week legislative break to begin immediate debate on a new AUMF agreement. McConnell, in a press conference before his chamber’s concurrent break, dismissed the idea.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) April 7, 2017
McCain also downplayed the need for a new authorization debate in the wake of the Syria attacks.
“War crimes deserved a response,” he said.
“I think when you’re going to be engaged in a long military campaign (you need an AUMF). An AUMF, when it stands is questionable in terms of its constitutionality is concerned. I respect the role of commander in chief and I would be glad and continue to engage in negotiations with my Democrat friends on a new one. I’m not ready for Congress to micromanage the commander in chief.”
In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee last month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he would welcome debate on a new war authorization for the Middle East.
“I would take no issue with the Congress stepping forward with an AUMF,” he said. “I think it'd be a statement of the American people's resolve if you did so. I thought the same thing for the last several years, I might add. And have not understood why the Congress hasn't come forward with this, at least the debate.”
But he also added that “I think we have to play the ball where it lies right now” and said he was confident Trump has the legal authorities to move ahead on swift military actions.
Trump and White House have not made public any plans to lobby Congress for a new force authorization. In his remarks after the attack, Trump called for “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also, to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Joe Gould covers Capitol Hill for Defense News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.