President Trump may be using his Twitter account to threaten airstrikes against Syria — but that doesn’t change the fact that he has no constitutional authority to order those strikes.
Unfortunately, the section of the Constitution that gives the power to declare war to Congress, and Congress alone, has become a section of the Constitution that most of our politicians — and our pundits — ignore. Debates on the issue these days are usually between only two sides — “He should” vs. “He shouldn’t” — while the important question of “Can he?” goes completely ignored. It often feels as though Article I, Section 8 has been all but forgotten, which is why I was so glad to see the recent comments from Senator Bernie Sanders.
“President Trump has no legal authority for broadening the war in Syria,” Sanders said in a statement. “It is Congress, not the president, who determines whether our country goes to war, and Congress must not abdicate that responsibility.”
“If President Trump believes that expanding the war in Syria will bring stability to the region and protect American interests, he should come to Congress with his ideas,” he continued.
There are many things that I disagree with Senator Sanders on (such as economic policy, spending, and health care) but here, he is absolutely right. The president has absolutely no authority to take military action against Syria. The Constitution is clear about this; it’s not hard to understand. In fact, it’s something that President Trump himself seemed to understand back in 2013 when Barack Obama was president:
The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2013
Twenty thirteen Trump was right; 2018 Trump is wrong. As Representative Justin Amash explained in a series of tweets earlier this week, there is absolutely nothing in the 1973 War Powers Resolution that allows President Trump to take action against Syria. According to the resolution: “The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement . . . in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” That’s it. As Representative Amash points out:
Read (1), (2), and (3) carefully. Is there any suggestion that the president can take *offensive* military action without congressional approval? No. The only situation in which he may dispense with congressional approval is to *defend* against a sudden attack on our country.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) April 10, 2018
It’s true: That the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against its own people is both sad and disgusting, but the thing is, there’s just no clause in the Constitution that makes an exception for the use of military force without congressional approval for things that are sad or disgusting. It just isn’t there, so it just isn’t allowed.
Personally, it’s my view that taking action in Syria would be a mistake. For one thing, I’m not sure what President Trump thinks it would accomplish. It clearly wouldn’t stop Assad from doing these kinds of horrific things in the future. After all, President Trump launched a missile strike against Syria in April 2017 in response t a different chemical attack, and it clearly seems that Assad has still gone ahead and done it again anyway. Striking Syria just doesn’t seem like a good use of force or resources, especially when it would threaten to put us in further conflict with Russia. I do understand that not everyone agrees with me on this, and it’s certainly something that’s up for debate.
What’s not up for debate, however, is that it isn’t supposed to be President Trump’s choice alone. The Constitution is clear.