Published on
by
The Atlantic

The Backlash Against Trump's Syria Strike

Members of Congress in both parties have declared his actions unconstitutional. Will Democrats campaign against their illegality?

“This country now considers it perfectly normal for the president to launch a fierce assault against a foreign country 5,000 miles from our borders without any congressional involvement at all, let alone a declaration of war." (Photo:Garry Knight/flickr/cc)

“This country now considers it perfectly normal for the president to launch a fierce assault against a foreign country 5,000 miles from our borders without any congressional involvement at all, let alone a declaration of war." (Photo:Garry Knight/flickr/cc) 

Last week Donald Trump willfully violated the Constitution as even he once understood it, despite being warned against doing so by dozens of members of Congress.

Hours before the president ordered the U.S. military to strike three targets in Syria, 88 members of Congress sent him a letter to remind him of his legal obligations. Strikes “when no direct threat to the United States exists” and “without Congressional authorization” would violate the Constitution’s separation of powers, they declared. “We strongly urge you to consult and receive authorization from Congress before ordering additional use of U.S. military force in Syria.”

That account of the law was bipartisan: The signatories included 15 Republicans and 73 Democrats, and a similar letter sent to President Obama in 2013 was signed by 119 Republicans and 21 Democrats. Surveying all the legal rationales offered in Trump’s defense, Jack Goldsmith and Oona Hathaway conclude at Lawfare, “there is no apparent domestic or international legal authority for the strikes.” And crucially, Trump himself explicitly shared their understanding of the law.

As he put it in 2013:

Here’s another example:

Today’s Republican-controlled Congress lacks a majority willing to punish Trump for his flagrantly illegal war-making. And that status quo alarms many. “This country now considers it perfectly normal for the president to launch a fierce assault against a foreign country 5,000 miles from our borders without any congressional involvement at all, let alone a declaration of war,” the commentator Damon Linker observed. “It’s just what presidents do, whenever they want.”

“If Congress does nothing to challenge the president’s illegal attack,” Daniel Larison warns, “they will be accepting own irrelevance in matters of war from now on.”

Yet there is a minority faction that wants to restore the Constitution.

“These offensive strikes against Syria are unconstitutional, illegal, and reckless,” Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, said. “The next speaker of the House must reclaim congressional war powers as prescribed in Article I of the Constitution. Speaker Ryan has completely abdicated one of his most important responsibilities.”

Members of the Senate have spoken up too. Prior to the strikes, Senator Rand Paul contested the notion that the president was constitutionally empowered to launch them.

And Democrats weighed in after the strikes, as well. “Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against Syria without Congress’s approval is illegal,” Senator Tim Kaine said. “We need to stop giving presidents a blank check to wage war. Today it’s Syria, but what’s going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next?”

“While Bashar al-Assad must be held accountable for his unlawful use of chemical weapons against civilians, the strikes that are being carried out are being done without an authorization from Congress, which is unacceptable,” Senator Bob Casey said. His colleague Bernie Sanders declared them “illegal and unauthorized,” while Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted: “The Constitution gives Congress the power to authorize military action. If @realDonaldTrump wants to expand American military involvement in Syria’s civil war, he must seek approval from Congress – & provide a comprehensive strategy with clear goals & a plan to achieve them.”

Reasserting congressional control over war-making is substantively important.

First, the status quo undermines democracy. Voters casting their ballots in the 2018 midterms ought to be able to look to an up-or-down vote to determine where their representative stood on striking Syria, one of the most grave and consequential matters that the country has considered over the last couple of years. Instead, legislators escaped taking a stand, rendering voters unable to hold them accountable.

Today’s Republican-controlled Congress lacks a majority willing to punish Trump for his flagrantly illegal war-making. And that status quo alarms many. “This country now considers it perfectly normal for the president to launch a fierce assault against a foreign country 5,000 miles from our borders without any congressional involvement at all, let alone a declaration of war,” the commentator Damon Linker observed. “It’s just what presidents do, whenever they want.”

“If Congress does nothing to challenge the president’s illegal attack,” Daniel Larison warns, “they will be accepting own irrelevance in matters of war from now on.”

Yet there is a minority faction that wants to restore the Constitution.

“These offensive strikes against Syria are unconstitutional, illegal, and reckless,” Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, said. “The next speaker of the House must reclaim congressional war powers as prescribed in Article I of the Constitution. Speaker Ryan has completely abdicated one of his most important responsibilities.”

Members of the Senate have spoken up too. Prior to the strikes, Senator Rand Paul contested the notion that the president was constitutionally empowered to launch them.

And Democrats weighed in after the strikes, as well. “Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against Syria without Congress’s approval is illegal,” Senator Tim Kaine said. “We need to stop giving presidents a blank check to wage war. Today it’s Syria, but what’s going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next?”

“While Bashar al-Assad must be held accountable for his unlawful use of chemical weapons against civilians, the strikes that are being carried out are being done without an authorization from Congress, which is unacceptable,” Senator Bob Casey said. His colleague Bernie Sanders declared them “illegal and unauthorized,” while Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted: “The Constitution gives Congress the power to authorize military action. If @realDonaldTrump wants to expand American military involvement in Syria’s civil war, he must seek approval from Congress – & provide a comprehensive strategy with clear goals & a plan to achieve them.”

Reasserting congressional control over war-making is substantively important.

First, the status quo undermines democracy. Voters casting their ballots in the 2018 midterms ought to be able to look to an up-or-down vote to determine where their representative stood on striking Syria, one of the most grave and consequential matters that the country has considered over the last couple of years. Instead, legislators escaped taking a stand, rendering voters unable to hold them accountable.

Sustain our Journalism

If you believe in Common Dreams, if you believe in people-powered independent journalism, please support our Spring drive now and help progressive media that believes as passionately as you do in defending the common good and building a more just, sustainable, and equitable world.

Conor Friedersdorf

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Share This Article