Pelosi effort to rein in Trump on Iran renews war powers debate

Administration officials hold classified briefings for Congress this week.

While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic House of Representatives are set to debate and vote on a war powers resolution later this week to limit President Donald Trump's authority to take military action against Iran, all members of Congress will receive classified briefings from senior Trump administration officials on Wednesday.

Those all-member sessions follow a "Gang of Eight" briefing for the top congressional and intelligence committee leadership slated for Tuesday as many lawmakers question the legality of the president's orders to target Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani.

Since last week's strike, the administration has attempted to justify its actions through two broad resolutions authorizing the use of military force that were enacted two decades ago but nevertheless have been used by three U.S. presidents to justify dozens of military operations across the region.

Democratic pushback

Pelosi said that a classified War Powers Act notification delivered to Congress last week "raises more questions than it answers" and prompted "serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration's decision to engage in hostilities against Iran – complaining that Congress and the American people "are being left in the dark about our national security."

"The Trump Administration's provocative, escalatory and disproportionate military engagement continues to put servicemembers, diplomats and citizens of America and our allies in danger," Pelosi, D-Calif., stated. "This initiation of hostilities was taken without an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iran, without the consultation of the Congress and without the articulation of a clear and legitimate strategy to either the Congress or the public."

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine is also leading a similar effort in the Senate, although its prospects for passage in the upper chamber are minimal considering broad GOP support for the president's actions.

What do the existing authorizations of the use of military force say?

2001 AUMF for Global War on Terror (S.J. Res 23) – approved September 18, 2001: "To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States."

Section 2 of the resolution explains that the president "is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."

2002 AUMF against Iraq (H.J. Res. 114) - approved October 16, 2002: "To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq."

Section 3 of this resolution specifies that the President "is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to — (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

Under the subsection titled "Presidential Determination," the resolution directs the president to explain why diplomacy alone won't "adequately protect the national security" of the U.S. against the "continuing threat posed by Iraq," and that acting militarily "is consistent" in taking "necessary actions against international terrorist and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

The Constitution

Congress has the expressed power to declare war, but Article II, Section II of the U.S. Constitution names the president as Commander in Chief over any military operations approved by Congress, although it does not state any limitation on that power.

For more than 200 years, that power has been hotly debated, challenged and loosely interpreted. Since Congress has the power to appropriate money to fund the U.S. military, the president would have no force to command without Congressional cooperation. But presidentialists argue that if there's an imminent threat, the president does not need to link military action to an authorization of military force and has the power to act to repel any attacks.

The Trump administration's defense

Trump will send Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA director Gina Haspel and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to brief senators behind closed doors on Wednesday. The officials are also expected to brief members of the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

Without directly citing the 2001 or 2002 AUMFs, Vice President Mike Pence posted a long thread on Twitter enumerating Soleimani's "worst atrocities," including overseeing the IRGC's financial, logistical and military support to the Taliban and sponsors attacks on coalition forces, providing missiles and other advanced weapons to terrorists throughout the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

"Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel," Pence tweeted Friday. "The world is a safer place today because Soleimani is gone."

Pompeo has also maintained that the strikes were intelligence-based and Trump's actions were taken to thwart an "imminent attack."

"We'll do everything required under the law to bring us into compliance with all the relevant constitutional legal provisions with respect to our duties to the legislative branch," Pompeo told George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. "We have all the authority we need to do what we've done to-date. We will continue to do things appropriately, lawfully, and constitutionally. George, we've been consistent about that. There's no reason to expect we'd do anything different going forward."

While the administration has pointed at both AUMFs to justify its military force, Tehran's links to al Qaeda are disputed. The 9/11 report stated that there was "no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack," although it found "strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers."

Although he misstated the number of 9/11 hijackers, Pence highlighted that Iranian facilitation of transit in the series of tweets last Friday, painting Soleimani as a terrorist while noting he "assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States." By tying Iran to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the administration is seemingly justifying its strike against Soleimani with the 2001 AUMF.

National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said that the Soleimani strike was "defensive action" taken "in order to protect American personnel" and "was designed to prevent further bloodshed." O'Brien further stated that the strike was "aimed at disrupting ongoing attacks that were being planned by Soleimani, and deterring future Iranian attacks, through their proxies or through the IRGC Quds Force directly, against Americans."

"It was a fully authorized action under the 2002 AUMF [for Iraq] and was consistent with his constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief to defend our nation and our forces against attacks like those that Soleimani has directed in the past and was plotting now," O'Brien told reporters on Friday. "There's always a risk in taking decisive action, there's a greater risk in not taking that action. And the President just was not prepared to risk the lives of American service men and women and our diplomats, given Soleimani's history and his efforts to further destabilize the region and the imminent nature of the attacks that he was planning on Americans in Iraq and in other locations."

The bottom line

Despite the criticism, Democratic efforts this week are unlikely to stop the president from taking further action against Iran, since the president still enjoys a GOP majority in the Senate and the resolution is subject to the president's veto power.