Capitol Hill weighs war powers and Trump's Syria strategy after missile strike

FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2017 file photo, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford greets Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon. The Trump administration opened the door to cooperating with Russia “or anyone else” to combat the Islamic State group in Syria, suggesting it could reverse a previous refusal to coordinate military action with Moscow as long as it backs the Syrian government. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke to members of the Senate in a closed door briefing on Friday afternoon to review the details, military justification, purpose and impact of the limited military strike against the Syrian air base of al-Shayrat ordered by President Donald Trump on Thursday evening.

Dunford was sent to Capitol Hill strictly to address the U.S. strike as a direct response to Tuesday's deadly chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun largely believed to have been directed by Syria's president Bashar al-Assad. But members of the public and lawmakers are eagerly awaiting word of Trump's Middle East strategy and whether the single military act could evolve into a broader war.

After hearing from Gen. Dunford about the nature of the strike and its direct aftermath, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters that he was comfortable with the military action authorized by the White House. Earlier in the day, Warner characterized the action as "appropriate," but said it "begs the question of what next."

The president's strategy will be left for another time, according to Warner and others. But in the coming days, the White House will be sending Vice President Michael Pence to brief members of Congress on the legal rationale President Trump employed to justify carrying out the attack, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told reporters.

Throughout the day, senators were bombarded with questions about President Trump's legal power to wage war, with the majority of members on both sides of the aisle saying that given the nature of the strike, Trump was well within his authority as Commander in Chief.

"I think he was well within his powers as the executive to do what he did," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D- W.Va.). "The president was very much within his realm and I am very much supportive of what was done last night."

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) was surprised by the president's response, but also heartened that he chose to act. "This is exactly what President Obama should have done when he drew the red line," he said. "I just appreciate the fact that this administration acted swiftly and decisively and that's what they should do."

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The U.S. demonstration of force sent an important message, both to Bashar al-Assad and the rest of the world, according to Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). The Thursday strike is "sending the signal that the use of chemical weapons will result in this kind of response."

He continued, that the strike "is an appropriate use of military action to punish the Assad regime for use of chemical weapons, violating international law and violating the agreement that had been reached [to destroy Syria's chemical weapons]."

The message Trump sent through the missile strike was very clear and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) expects the Syrian regime will think twice before carrying out further atrocities like the one committed in Khan Sheikhoun. "If he even blinks like he's going to use chemical weapons again, I think we'll hit the rest of his air field," Nelson said.

However, there is another group of senators who argue that the military action was unlawful and unjustified, both because he failed to consult Congress beforehand and because of the potential ramifications of the attack on a foreign government.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a vocal opponent of U.S. intervention overseas, argued that the president took action against a sitting government without Congress ever seeing the intelligence that would confirm Assad was responsible for this week's chemical weapons attack.

"I haven't seen any [of the intelligence], but it's a little bit late to help make a decision on whether to go to war since they've already begun the war," Paul told Sinclair Broadcast Group. The single strike is likely to lead to a slippery slope of greater U.S. engagement, he argued, because the Assad regime has many more military assets to deploy in the civil war than what was destroyed at al-Shayrat.

"I would guess that the war goes on and on and on. I don't see this as an end to the war," Paul said.

Following the assault on al_Shayrat, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it would provide additional assistance to "strengthen and raise the effectiveness" of Syria's armed forces, in particular its anti-aircraft defense systems. Currently, the United States regularly conducts air strikes in Syria as part of the anti-Islamic State coalition's Operation Inherent Resolve, along with a handful of allies who also fly missions in Syrian airspace.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that Trump's action against the Syrian regime was "not a lawful act," claiming that his failure to go to Congress to receive an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) before conducting the strike represents a direct threat to the separation of powers.

"If the president gets away with taking this action against the Syrian regime without a congressional vote, there is no end to the executive power over military affairs," he said. "If you don't need authorization to strike a foreign government with no imminent threat to the United States, then when will Congress ever have to weigh in on military action overseas?"

Murphy has been among a handful of lawmakers who have fought in recent years to get a new war powers authorization in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), instead of the continued use of the 2001 AUMF which was authorized to wage war against al-Qaeda, its affiliates and those responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Alleging the president made the military decisions "off of an emotion reaction to images on TV," Murphy charged Trump is demonstrating "potential disdain for the war-making authority of the United States Congress."

In his official notification to Congress, President Trump made clear that the he did not intend to continue a military campaign against the Syrian regime beyond the single strike on Thursday evening, senators told Sinclair Broadcast Group.

That highly limited nature of the strike has left many lawmakers arguing that the president acted within both the 1973 War Powers Act and the constitutional authority granted to the president as Commander in Chief, and therefore he had no need to get a congressional authorization for war before acting.

"I think you could very much make the case that he has the power under Article 2 of the Constitution," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) argued. "But if there are any continuing military operations, he does not have any congressional authority to do what he did, so there he needs to consult and submit to Congress a [request for authorization of military force]."

Cardin is among the senators anxiously waiting to hear the president's "game plan" for Syria, and will carefully review that strategy before considering an authorization for any sort of deeper U.S military engagement.

Whatever the president's military strategy, both as it relates to the Syrian civil war and the ongoing fight against ISIS in the region, it will depend a great deal on the reactions of Assad and his allies in Russia and Iran in the coming days.

Even then, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) believes that Trump should stick to his current practice of not broadcasting his military strategy. "I don't think anybody benefits from the president explaining what we might do," Blunt said. "It's important that both the Syrians and the Russians wonder at what we might do."

During a press conference the day before he authorized the action in Syria, Trump told reporters that unlike the Obama administration he had no intention to say militarily where he is going and what he is doing.

That unpredictability has left some feeling a little bit in the dark, even lawmakers who regularly speak with President Trump and other White House representatives, like Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

Even though he had a discussion with an administration official on Thursday before the strike and spoke directly with President Trump after, Corker told reporters that he would have appreciated even more consultation.

"I think it happened pretty quickly, in all honesty. I don't think they decided until 4 p.m. in the afternoon yesterday that they were going to undertake this," he told reporters. Despite having unprecedented open communication with the Trump White House, Corked noted, "A little more conversation would have been good ... more than yesterday at 5 p.m."

Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also received a call from President Trump on Thursday night. In a meeting with Trump earlier this week, McCain discussed the issue of grounding the Syrian air force by targeting air bases.

The senator applauded the president's decision to act and take the advice of his national security team. By authorizing the limited strike, the president may have taken a first step to reset the table for resolving the Syria conflict by raising the stakes for Syria and for Russia, McCain said.

"When the only thing they understand is force ... at some point they may pay a high enough penalty that they may come to the negotiating table," he argued. Despite the many attempts by the Obama administration and the international community to incentivize a Syrian transition of power and end to the bloody civil war, each attempt at peace talks collapsed. "They were able to get away with murder," McCain charged.

In the immediate aftermath of the strike on the air field, McCain says the momentum n the ground has already changed. "The signal has been sent and it's only the beginning, not the end. We have to pursue strategy of arming the Free Syrian Army, of establishing safe zones and making sure the equation is such that the Russians and Bashar Assad want to sit down and negotiate, and Bashar Assad has to go."

Congress will be on recess for the next two weeks as the reactions to Trump's first major military operation begin to take shape. Members are expecting additional information from White House officials in the coming days and weeks, including the briefing from Vice President Pence on the legal justification for the attack.

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