Pentagon & Congress

How far can Trump push Iran without Congress’ OK? Depends who you ask

A day after President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike to kill a key Iranian military leader on Iraqi soil, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were left with questions over whether the attack was legal and how much further the commander-in-chief can push the confrontation with Iran without congressional approval.

“The administration did not consult (with Congress) in this case, and I fear that very serious questions have not been answered and may not be fully considered,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on Friday. “Among those questions, what was the legal basis for conducting this operation? And how far does that legal basis extend?

“It is my view that the president does not have the authority for a war with Iran. If he plans a large increase in troops and potential hostility over a longer time, the administration will require congressional approval and the approval of the American people.”

Earlier, the Pentagon confirmed that Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of an elite arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed along with several others in an U.S. operation near the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

The move drew immediate condemnation from Iranian leaders, who vowed to leave “the dead bodies of Americans all over the Middle East" in retaliation.

Pentagon officials said the move was in response to an imminent threat posed by Soleimani, and that U.S. personnel in the region were saved by the killing. Trump in a Friday morning tweet said that the general “should have been taken out many years ago.”

But numerous Democrats in Congress said they still have not seen enough information about the threat posed by Soleimani or the legal justification for such a military strike. They warned the action could further destabilize the Middle East, especially if Trump decides to act impulsively and without permission from Congress.

Under the War Powers Resolution in 1973, the president is required to notify Congress within 48 hours of any military action and prohibits the president from continuing that action for more than 60 days without an authorization for use of force from Congress.

Different presidents have interpreted those requirements in different ways, especially since Congress approved a pair of broad military force authorizations in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement Friday that the this week’s attack occurred “without an Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran” and “without the consultation of the Congress,” both of which are needed to ensure national security.

“The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation, and on the next steps under consideration by the administration, including the significant escalation of the deployment of additional troops to the region,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Pentagon officials are working on an all-member briefing on Capitol Hill next week, after most lawmakers return from the holiday break.

He also said he has spoken to Defense Secretary Mark Esper about the operation and expressed no reservations about the decision to kill Soleimani.

“Although I anticipate and welcome a debate about America's interest in foreign policy in the Middle East, I recommend that all senators wait to review the facts and hear from the administration before passing much public judgment on this operation and its potential consequences,” he said in a floor speech on Friday.

Many members appear to have already made up their minds. Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla. and an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, criticized Democratic colleagues for questioning the legal basis for the strike.

“Congressional authorization isn’t required for an act of self defense to prevent further attacks against our military,” he said on social media. “To sit and wait while Soleimani puts more Americans in body bags would be completely irresponsible of (the president).”

But Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who previously worked as a Middle East analyst for the CIA and Defense Department, said the move may have made U.S. personnel in the region less safe because White House officials have not developed a strategy with lawmakers to handle the potentially violent aftermath of such an operation.

“This administration, like all others, has the right to act in self-defense,” she said on social media. “But the administration must come to Congress immediately and consult. If military engagement is going to be protracted — which any informed assessment would consider — the administration must request an (authority for use of military force).”

Congress has been unable to find a compromise on a new military force authorization framework for years, despite fears from many lawmakers that authorities put in place in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks have been interpreted too broadly by multiple administrations.

The most recent legislation effort to pull back some of those presidential war powers failed last month, when congressional negotiators dropped new authorization language from the annual defense budget policy bill.

Scott Anderson, who works as the David M. Rubenstein fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said it is unclear whether the administration’s interpretation of those existing authorities will run afoul of Congress or outside legal arguments.

“It definitely seems this was an action which pushes the envelope in a number of regards, both under domestic and international law,” he told reporters in a conference call Friday. “I’m not sure that describing it as ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’ is necessarily correct because the legal questions tends to be viewed through a highly differential view of [executive power].”

But those questions are likely to take on extra focus in coming days as tensions in the region increase. Pentagon officials confirmed Friday that a force of nearly 4,000 soldiers would head to Kuwait and neighboring countries to act as a response force to regional threats. Earlier in the week, about 750 troops were sent to Iraq to help secure the U.S. embassy there.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said that move demands more and better communication between the White House and Congress.

“I do not want an open war with Iran, and neither do the American people,” he said.

“The administration must clearly articulate how this action, and potential future actions, will protect U.S. global interests while ensuring the safety and security of our personnel in the region and worldwide. The American people deserve to know why President Trump has brought us to the brink of another war and under what authorization.”

Reporter Aaron Mehta contributed to this story.

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