If President Trump made the decision to assassinate the supreme leader of Iran, would he need to come to Congress to get authorization for it?
The Trump administration won’t say.
That remarkable claim is now being made by a Republican senator — Mike Lee of Utah. He offered it in a new interview with NPR, in which he shared fresh details about why he erupted in anger on Wednesday over the briefing Congress received from the administration on Iran.
As you know, Lee’s comments went viral Wednesday after he ripped into the briefing given to lawmakers about Trump’s decision to assassinate Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
Lee, echoing the complaints of many Democrats, blasted the briefing on the intelligence behind the assassination as the “worst” he’d ever seen. He also fumed that officials refused to acknowledge any “hypothetical” situations in which they would come to Congress for authorization for future military hostilities against Iran.
Now, in the interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin, Lee has gone into more alarming detail. Lee reiterated that officials “were unable or unwilling to identify any point” at which they’d come to Congress for authorization for the use of military force. Then this exchange happened:
MARTIN: What kind of hypotheticals were you putting to them in hopes of understanding when the administration sees a need for Congressional authority?
LEE: As I recall, one of my colleagues asked a hypothetical involving the Supreme Leader of Iran: If at that point, the United States government decided that it wanted to undertake a strike against him personally, recognizing that he would be a threat to the United States, would that require authorization for the use of military force?
The fact that there was nothing but a refusal to answer that question was perhaps the most deeply upsetting thing to me in that meeting.
Obviously, this was an extreme hypothetical. But the point of it was to discern the contours of the administration’s sense of its own obligation to come to Congress for approval of future hostilities. And it succeeded in doing just that, demonstrating that they recognize no such obligation.
“It would be hard to understand assassinating a foreign head of state as anything other than an act of war,” Josh Chafetz, a Cornell law professor and the author of a book on Congress’ hidden powers, told me. “It’s appalling that executive-branch officials would imply, even in responding to a hypothetical question, that they do not need congressional authorization to do it.”
“If the administration won’t concede that this is a clear example of when they would have to go to Congress, it’s hard to imagine what would be,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, added. “This underscores just how completely irrelevant they view Congress to be in the war powers conversation.”
In the NPR interview, Lee also disclosed that at one point in the briefing, an official “discouraged us from even having a debate on the Senate floor” about whether Congress should pass new measures constraining Trump’s authority to launch future military actions without authorization.
“That might somehow embolden the Iranian regime in future attacks against the United States,” Lee said, characterizing the argument the official made.
It’s worth stressing that this is emerging as the explicit position among Trump’s loyalists and propagandists. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is now dismissing concerns about the need for Congress to reassert its warmaking authority as “emboldening the enemy.”
Meanwhile, Trump just rage-tweeted that he wants “all House Republicans” to “vote against Crazy Nancy Pelosi’s War Powers Resolution.”
That’s a reference to a measure that the House speaker is putting to a House vote Thursday that would require Trump to cease any military hostilities against Iran 30 days after enactment, if he hasn’t received congressional authorization for it. The House will all but certainly pass this, and there are other tougher measures on tap.
But we should be under no illusions about what’s happening here.
It’s great that Lee is aggressively calling out the administration’s willingness to abuse its war power. Lee is apparently going to vote for a measure in the Senate that is a companion to the House bill.
But despite this, the GOP-controlled Senate is still likely to block such efforts. Last spring, a similar measure failed to get the 60 votes needed for passage, with all but four GOP senators voting against it. Virtually all GOP senators will likely vote against the new one, too.
By the way, it requires restating: Former president Barack Obama abused the war power as well, and far too many congressional Democrats went along with it. Congress has been abdicating its war-declaring authority for decades.
Our system is now functionally that one person makes these extraordinarily consequential decisions. Plainly, the person in question is not fit to do so.
Indeed, in this case, you’d think the starkness of the situation would get Congress — or, more precisely, congressional Republicans, since virtually all Democrats will do the right thing this time — to reassert its authority.
Trump has threatened war crimes, has boasted about the size of his missiles and just ordered an assassination of a senior military leader in a sovereign country without alerting Congress or seeking its approval, based on intelligence that is dubious at best and on rationales that have fallen apart.
But Trump’s tweet calling on “all House Republicans” to vote against the new war powers measure now means that being loyal to Trump is synonymous with giving him unconstrained warmaking authority, despite all the madness we’ve seen. And so it shall be.