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The Fog of War Powers: Did Trump Have the Power to Authorize the Airstrike on Syria?

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At the beginning of the week, it seemed like the biggest news would be the ongoing battle over whether the Senate would approve Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court … aaaaand then came Thursday’s news that President Donald Trump authorized an airstrike against a Syrian air base.

There’s a lot of chatter about whether it was legal for President Trump to initiate the strike without congressional approval. The question centers around the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which requires the president to seek congressional approval before committing the U.S. armed forces to military action. President Trump informed key members of Congress of his plans to launch the attack, but did not actually ask for approval. So that sounds like an open-and-shut case, right?

But of course, it’s not quite that simple. The War Powers Resolution gives an exception for “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” That language has been interpreted by the Council on Foreign Relations as giving the President “leeway to respond to attacks or other emergencies.” And after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, Congress authorized then-President Bush to fight al-Qaeda across the globe, which then-President Obama – and, now, President Trump – have interpreted as applying to continued conflicts in the Middle East. Their argument is that the ongoing military action in the Middle East is still part of that fight against al-Qaeda, and it’s therefore not necessary to seek congressional approval again.

So the short answer is that President Trump is operating in what seems something of a legal gray area. Critics say that there was no attack on the United States, and therefore the president cannot legally initiate the air strike without congressional permission. Supporters, meanwhile, say that the strike was allowed based on the earlier congressional approval – an argument that was embraced and used by the Obama administration during its tenure. (That said, Obama also sought congressional approval to become more involved in the Syria conflict, so it appears that his administration did not feel it had carte blanche to operate in Syria without the congressional go-ahead.)

It seems unlikely that there will be any sort of resolution or consensus in the near future about whether President Trump’s actions were consistent with the letter of the law – or even the spirit of the law – but in the meantime, at least you’ll sound smart when discussing the War Powers Resolution of 1973 with your friends.