Following President Trump’s unilateral decision to launch missiles at a Syrian airbase—a decision reportedly triggered by an emotional reaction to pictures of wounded children in the area—the vast majority of lawmakers in both parties lined up to support the strike, though they acknowledged that Trump did not consult Congress in advance and said they do not know the long-term U.S. strategy in the region.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), asked for the legal justification for launching a military attack without seeking authority from Congress, shrugged off the question in a Friday press conference.
“I think the President has the authority to do what he did,” he said, adding that he might be “interested in taking a look at” an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) “if the President feels like he needs it.”
Asked if there any discussions underway about bringing Congress back from their April recess to debate a military authorization, McConnell gave a one-word reply: “No.”
Most members of Congress, regardless of party, said Friday that the strike on Syria was “proportional and appropriate” and that Trump was acting within his power as president to respond to “immediate threats”—in this case, the Syrian regime’s deployment of banned chemical weapons against civilians.
Only a handful of Democrats and even fewer Republicans said publicly that they believed Thursday night’s missile strike was unlawful.
“The legal underpinning for this strike is slim to none,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told reporters. “It’s completely lacking. I’ve said under the past administration as well as this one that there has to be authorization for the use of military force.”
Blumenthal and a few other lawmakers noted that the Trump administration’s stance on Syria has been “erratic,” pointing out that the secretary of state and White House press secretary said just a few days ago that Assad was likely to stay in power.
“This was a 24-hour pivot on Syrian policy,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said. “He clearly made this decision based off an emotional reaction to the images on TV. And it should worry everyone about the quixotic nature of this administration’s foreign policy and their potential disdain for the war-making authority of the United States Congress.”
Murphy warned that if the legislative branch doesn’t reassert its authority to declare war, the Trump administration “will continue to launch attacks knowing that they don’t need to come to Congress.”
“If the President gets away with taking this action against the Syrian regime without a congressional vote, there is no end to the executive power over military affairs,” he said. “If you don’t need authorization to strike a foreign government with no imminent threat to the United States, then when will Congress ever have to weigh in on military action overseas? I think this is a turning point moment.”
While the Democratic leaders of the House are demanding Congress return from recess to have a full debate on giving President Trump the power to take military action in Syria, most Democratic senators appeared unsure if this is necessary.
“I don’t know,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said when asked if the Syria strike was lawful.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), even while arguing “there is no military victory [possible] in Syria,” said the strike was “appropriate” because it was “responding to a chemical attack that was atrocious.”
“The civilized world needed to see some reaction,” he argued.
Meanwhile, most Republican senators—including those who opposed President Obama when he sought an AUMF from Congress to strike Syria after an even more deadly chemical weapons attack in 2013—gave a full-throated defense of Trump.
McConnell, who opposed President Obama’s bid for military action in Syria, claimed inaccurately at Friday morning’s press conference that Obama never sought authorization from Congress. When reporters corrected him, noting that President Obama sent two AUMF proposals to Congress, McConnell argued they didn’t count because “they were so restrictive.”
Some members of Congress made the dubious assertion that the legal authority for Trump’s Syria strike lay in the AUMF passed by Congress in 2001, following the terrorist attack on 9/11, which Republican and Democratic presidents have relied on since then to wage a “war on terror” without geographical or temporal limits.
“We passed [an AUMF] in back in 2001 and 2002, I believe, and the previous president thought that it authorized what we were doing in that part of the world and I expect this president thinks the same,” McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
The only Republican to publicly challenge that legal argument was Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who accused Trump on Friday of “operating in a sort of unconstitutional, illegal zone.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) dismissed the notion that there was legal authority for the Syria strike in the AUMF passed by Congress in 2001 following the terrorist attack on 9/11.
“It’s sort of farcical to say that the people who orchestrated 9/11 has anything to do with today,” he said. “They’re not obeying the Constitution. They’re just doing whatever they want.”