Trump steamrolls Congress as Iran fight escalates

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Neither Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer nor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (above) received advance warning of the U.S. assassination of Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But lawmakers also have themselves to blame.

President Donald Trump’s decision to kill a top Iranian commander marks his most unabashed move yet to steamroll Congress on matters of war and peace.

Yet the powerlessness of Capitol Hill is also a product of lawmakers’ own making.

Despite a concerted push from Democrats and a handful of Republicans to reassert congressional authority when it comes to military action abroad, Congress has done little to restrain Trump — or many presidents before him.

The White House gave zero notice to key congressional leaders about the U.S. drone strike on Qassem Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds force, and which followed days of increasing violence in Iraq, including an attack Tuesday against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wasn’t informed of the air strike ahead of time and only spoke with Defense Secretary Mark Esper after the strike. She said in a statement that the deadly action “was taken without the consultation of Congress.”

“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,” Pelosi said. So far, that briefing has yet to be scheduled, according to Democratic aides.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was also not given advance notice of the strike and he lambasted Trump for not seeking advice from Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, praised Trump for the move and said he has spoken to Esper, though he also wants an all-senators briefing.

Senate and House leadership as well as key committee staff are scheduled to receive briefings from administration officials on Friday afternoon. The session was previously scheduled to discuss the earlier attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

While most lawmakers were in the dark about Trump’s plans, Sen. Lindsey Graham was a notable exception. The hawkish South Carolina Republican and close Trump ally said Friday he had been briefed on the potential strike while visiting Trump in Mar-a-Lago.

The strike against Soleimani is not the first time Trump has declined to consult with lawmakers before key national security decisions. The administration didn’t give a heads up to congressional leaders before the raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But Trump more so than previous presidents has cut the opposition party out of the loop. Roughly a dozen Senate Republicans were briefed on the administration’s Syria plans in the White House Situation Room last October; no Democrats were present.

Soleimani’s killing and the prospect of a widening conflict in the Middle East — renewed calls from Democrats and a handful of Republicans for Congress to rein in Trump

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the killing as “the equivalent of the Iranians assassinating the U.S. Secretary of Defense” and said it was “incumbent upon this administration to come to Congress to get authorization for future military action.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Friday he was filing a War Powers resolution to try to force the Senate to debate conflict with Iran.

A handful of Republicans also called for additional congressional oversight of Trump’s use of force abroad.

“If we are to go to war w/ Iran the Constitution dictates that we declare war,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “A war without a Congressional declaration is a recipe for feckless intermittent eruptions of violence w/ no clear mission for our soldiers. Our young men and women in the armed services deserve better.”

Lawmakers have made some attempts to claw back authority from the president, but they’ve all fallen short.

Congress passed legislation last year to end U.S. support for the Saudi-backed war in Yemen, but Trump promptly vetoed it.

In July, the House approved an amendment to an annual defense policy bill that would have required congressional approval for military action against Iran. But that language, authored by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a top progressive, and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a close Trump ally, was ultimately dropped in negotiations with the Senate, which had previously rejected a similar proposal on the floor.

And though lawmakers in both parties have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the 2001 authorization for the use of military force — which underpins the war in Afghanistan and the many U.S. counterterrorism operations worldwide — there’s little consensus on how to draft a new law.

House Democrats voted last year to repeal the 2001 AUMF as well as the 2002 Iraq War authorization, but neither proposal gained traction in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Most Republicans are reluctant to restrain the president’s authority on military intervention, and they praised Trump for killing Soleimani.

“On behalf of every American serviceman and servicewoman who has either been killed or injured due to an Iranian-provided IED or rocket in Iraq over the years, today justice was done,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho).

Congress has spent decades relinquishing its power over military intervention, and presidents of both parties have capitalized on the trend.

And even if Congress had passed some sort of new law to restrict the president, it’s not clear Trump — who has eagerly tested the bounds of his legal authority — would have obliged.

John Bellinger, a top lawyer in the George W. Bush National Security Council, said the strike was legal because the Constitution empowered the president to use military force if the country or American interests are at risk.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Soleimani was planning an “imminent” assault, but Bellinger said even Soleimani’s past attacks against the U.S. would still provide a legal basis for the president to act without first going to Congress.

Whether it was legal, however, is irrelevant to whether it was smart.

“It does seem to me that even if this strike was lawful under domestic law, it raises very serious questions about whether this was good policy given the tensions that currently exist in the Persian Gulf region and the potential for retaliation,” said Bellinger. “It’s not at all clear that all of those concerns were thought through.”

Heather Caygle, Burgess Everett, Connor O’Brien and Jacqueline Feldscher contributed to this report.

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