The United States launched a major military strike against Syria on Thursday night.
The attack was authorized by Donald Trump.
It was not authorized by Congress, as required by the U.S. Constitution.
The president, in a brief statement, indicated that the missile assault on a Syrian government airbase was initiated in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians earlier in the week. “Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the air field in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump said from Mar-a-Lago in Florida. The president said that: “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
The reference to a “vital national security interest” was an attempt to justify the presidential action.
But Congresswoman Barbara Lee argued Thursday night that “this is an act of war. Congress needs to come back into session and hold a debate. Anything less is an abdication of our responsibility.”
Lee condemned the deployment of chemical weapons as “barbaric and heinous war crimes.” But the congresswoman, who has for years objected to presidential overreach in matters of war and peace, argued Thursday night that Trump must seek a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force. “I was the lone vote against [the] 2001 AUMF,” the California Democrat explained, referencing the congressional resolution that authorized President George W. Bush to respond to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That authorization has been repeatedly used to justify military actions since 2001.
After more than 15 years, Lee said, the “Syria strikes are far beyond the scope of this  war authorization.” She urged House Speaker Paul Ryan to organize a new congressional vote.
"This is an act of war. Congress needs to come back into session and hold a debate." -- Barbara Lee
Lee was not alone in making the case that Trump—who ran in 2016 as an “America First” candidate who was skeptical about military adventurism and who in the past argued that congressional authorization was required for any assault on Syria—acted without adequate authorization.
While the president reportedly consulted some members of Congress Thursday, that consultation did not meet the standards established by a Constitution that says “the Congress shall have [the] power… To declare War…”
Not the president. The Congress.
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Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2016, bluntly declared that Trump’s action was “unconstitutional.”
“Assad is a brutal dictator who must be held to account for atrocities,” argued Kaine. “But the president’s failure to seek congressional approval is unlawful.”
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential contender, agreed.
"The President needs Congressional authorization for military action, as required by the Constitution." -- Rand Paul
“The President needs Congressional authorization for military action, as required by the Constitution,” declared Paul in a Thursday-evening tweet.
“While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria,” added Paul, “the United States was not attacked.”
That’s an important distinction. Presidents have the authority to launch military actions to defend the United States. But even when the United States has been attacked, wise presidents have gone to Congress to seek declarations of war, as Franklin Roosevelt did after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
But, in recent decades, presidents have been increasingly inclined to go it alone—and to re-imagine old AUMFs as somehow legitimizing new acts of war.
Congress might well be convinced to support limited military action to destroy chemical weapons, and there are some senators—Arizona Republican John McCain and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham—who would like to go much further. But Senator Paul warns, “Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer and Syria will be no different.”
Lee said, after the Pentagon confirmed that the Trump administration was developing options for a military strike on Syria, that “at a time when President Trump stands on the verge of marching our nation into another war with unknown costs and consequences, Congress should not be on recess. I urge the Speaker to honor the Constitution and require a debate and vote on any further use of force in Syria.”
Lee is correct.
In 2001, when she opposed George W. Bush’s AUMF, millions of Americans said “Barbara Lee Speaks for Me.” She also spoke for the Constitution. And she is still doing so.