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Following Iranian missile attacks on military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq on Jan. 8, all eyes are on the White House for signs of what President Trump will do next. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif indicated on Twitter that the attacks, which caused no confirmed casualties, “concluded” Iran’s response to the killing of Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani so long as the United States did not respond further. In his address on Jan. 9, Trump said that “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.” It’s unclear what happens next—but with such consequential questions at stake, what will be the role of Congress moving forward?
Notably, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a letter to her colleagues on Jan. 5 that the House will introduce and vote on a war powers resolution to limit Trump’s military actions against Iran. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) introduced that resolution on Wednesday. The House is set to vote on the resolution on Thursday. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced his own resolution in the Senate last week. At this moment, it is unclear whether or how these resolutions will move forward. So with the possibility of a broader congressional response up in the air, it’s worth taking stock of statements key members of Congress have made.
The responses to Trump’s decision to authorize the drone strike on Soleimani have largely split along party lines. Republicans have for the most part praised the president for taking decisive action to stop what the administration claims was an imminent threat to American lives. Meanwhile, Democrats have condemned Soleimani while criticizing the Trump administration’s move as reckless and arguing it will further escalate tensions with Iran. Some have requested that the administration declassify the Jan. 4 war powers notification the president submitted to Congress following the action against Soleimani.
Members’ statements also provide some understanding of whether they are advocating for—or even talking about—the institutional role of Congress on the question of war powers and the use of force. While some members focus solely on the idea that Congress should have been notified prior to the strike, a few call for greater congressional action—either working with or stopping the Trump administration—to prevent wider conflict with Iran. Looking forward, these statements raise the question of whether or not congressional complaints will evolve into a substantial institutional response and action from Congress.
Below are selected quotes from some members. This is not intended to be a comprehensive account but, rather, to provide Lawfare readers with a sense of how members of Congress are responding and what that might mean for the future of war powers and use of force debates in Congress. I have focused on statements by key figures and comments that specifically reference the institutional role of Congress or steps Congress might take going forward.
Congressional Republicans. Republican lawmakers have focused largely on the Trump administration’s claim of an imminent threat to American safety prompting the targeted killing, praising the president’s decisive action and defending his ability to take said action.
- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): “We should welcome his death and its complication of Tehran’s terrorism-industrial complex. But we must remain vigilant and soberly prepare for even further aggression. [...] Unfortunately, in this toxic political environment, some of our colleagues rushed to blame our own government before even knowing the facts…[,] rushed to split hairs about intelligence before being briefed on it…[,] and rushed to downplay Soleimani’s evil while presenting our own president as the villain.”
- House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.): “Over the last month, an Iran-backed terrorist organization attacked American bases in Iraq, killing one American and wounding several others. President Trump responded appropriately by striking known terrorist bases in Iraq and Syria. Iran chose to escalate this situation further by using proxy groups, terrorists, and militias to attack our embassy in Baghdad. In a display of resolve and strength, we struck the leader of those attacking our sovereign U.S. territories. Qassem Soleimani was a terrorist. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers and thousands of innocent Syrian civilians.”
- Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee: “Congratulations to President Trump on his decisive action and the successful outcome. Qassem Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and his death presents an opportunity for Iraq to determine its own future free from Iranian control. As I have previously warned the Iranian government, they should not mistake our reasonable restraint in response to their previous attacks as weakness. The U.S. will always vigorously defend our interests and allies in the face of terrorist conduct and provocations.”
- Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee: “President Trump has been clear all along—the United States will not tolerate Iran spilling American blood, and tonight he followed his words with action. The Quds Force, under the direction of Soleimani, is responsible for attacks that have killed hundreds of American and coalition service members. Last week, an Iranian proxy killed an American contractor, and this week, Iran’s proxies attacked our embassy and were actively targeting American diplomats and service members. Their actions were unacceptable—as are all actions that threaten Americans and our coalition partners. From al-Baghdadi to Soleimani, America’s adversaries should have no doubt that President Trump means what he says.”
- Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee: “Iran and the Iranian people can now turn away from Soleimani’s murderous adventurism, redirect the Quds Force’s money into Iran’s economy, bring home the troops Soleimani sent abroad, and move forward toward building a more peaceful region.”
- Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.): “I now urge the Administration to be prepared for possible retaliation, including against U.S. troops stationed in the region, and to consult closely with Congress on any next steps should the situation escalate.”
- Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.): “This was a preemptive, defensive strike planned to take out the organizer of attacks yet to come.”
- Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah): “With ever increasing challenges confronting us in the Middle East, it is imperative that the U.S. and our allies articulate & pursue a coherent strategy for protecting our security interests in the region ...[.] I will be pressing the Administration for additional details in the days ahead.”
- Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee: “Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said today President Trump would take action if he had reason to believe another attack was imminent. The Administration also made clear it will protect our service members and other Americans in the region. Qasem Soleimani made his living wreaking havoc on the freedom-loving people of the Middle East. His resume included nurturing the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon; protecting and enabling the tyrant Bashar al-Assad in Syria; and destabilizing Yemen. He supported militias in Iraq that killed over 600 Americans as well as thousands of Iraqis. According to the Pentagon, Soleimani was actively plotting more attacks on Americans. The President acted decisively to protect our country, diplomats, service members and citizens.”
- Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee: “Iran has been deliberately ratcheting up tensions with provocative actions against the United States for some time, testing us and the world. That campaign has been largely orchestrated by General Soleimani, who was also responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and American service members in Iraq. The U.S. must be fully prepared for whatever actions Iran may take after the death of Soleimani’s and Iran’s proxy militia leader in Iraq. And all other nations that seek peace and stability throughout the Middle East should stand with us to discourage further Iranian aggression.”
- Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee: “The fact that the Democrats would not be out there saying, thank God—No. 1, thank God this guy is gone. No. 2, Iran better not do anything more or we will strike you again ...[.] I mean, this guy got away with this for way too long.”
Congressional Democrats. Some congressional Democrats have focused on the unknown consequences of these actions in terms of potentially escalating tension with Iran. Others criticized the issue of the Trump administration’s failure to consult with Congress prior to taking action. And some have suggested that the action may have been aimed in part at diverting attention from impeachment.
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): “The Administration has conducted tonight’s strikes in Iraq targeting high-level Iranian military officials and killing Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani without an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iran. Further, this action was taken without the consultation of the Congress .…. The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation and on the next steps under consideration by the Administration, including the significant escalation of the deployment of additional troops to the region.”
- Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): “The need for advance consultation and transparency with Congress was put in the Constitution for a reason, because the lack of consultation and transparency and can lead to hasty and ill-considered decisions …. When the security of the nation at risk, decisions must not be made in a vacuum …. This action may well have brought our nation closer to another endless war, exactly the kind of endless war the president promised he would not drag us into.”
- Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee: “I fear that this administration used tactics but has no strategy in the long term ... what we can’t accept is a march to an unauthorized war.”
- Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee: “President Trump failed to consult with Congress. Now he must provide the American people, Congress, and the international community a thoughtful plan for what comes next. Our troops and diplomats deserve a strategy that is worthy of their sacrifice. War with Iran is not inevitable. Now is the time for restraint, diplomacy, and engagement. President Trump should choose that path rather than lurching into another disastrous military conflict in the Middle East.”
- Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee: “Presidential administrations of both parties have traditionally consulted with Congress before conducting strategically significant military actions.”
- Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.): “This has been a deteriorating situation: A president that does not have a clear-eyed larger strategy to not only bring stabilization to the area but make Americans more safe .... We have a president who has had, really, a failure in his Iranian policy and who’s had no larger strategic plan, and who’s made that region less stable and less safe not only for Americans but for other countries.”
- Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.): “President Trump’s decision to kill Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad is a provocative act taken without congressional consultation or authorization, the potential consequences of which are unknown.”
- Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.): “Congress must act to stop President Trump from entangling America in yet another unnecessary war in the Middle East.”
○ NOTE: In addition to the war powers resolution referenced above, Kaine sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill to prohibit unconstitutional war with Iran, which was supported by a bipartisan majority of senators in June. Ultimately, it was not included in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act.
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): “The administration needs to fully consult with Congress on its decision-making, response plans, and strategy for preventing wider conflict."
- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars. Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one.”
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): “Next week, the President of the United States could be facing an impeachment trial in the Senate, .... We know he’s deeply upset about that. And I think people are reasonably asking, why this moment? Why does he pick now to take this highly inflammatory, highly dangerous action that moves us closer to war?”
- Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.): “[T]his strike went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress. To push ahead with an action of this gravity without involving Congress raises serious legal problems and is an affront to Congress’s powers as a coequal branch of government. Even if this strike was in self-defense, no current congressional authorization covered it and the President needs to notify Congress within 48 hours pursuant to the War Powers Resolution. The law requires notification so the President can’t plunge the United States into ill-considered wars. We must also hear without delay from senior officials about this action and their plans to deal with the aftermath.”
- Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.): “I have grave concerns about the chain of events leading to the direct action that resulted in the death of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force. I remain troubled about the impact this action will have on the safety and security of United States’ personnel and assets in the region. Rather than calming the strained tensions in the region, this action will only accelerate the cycle of violent escalation. I do not want an open war with Iran, and neither do the American people. However, the absence of a coherent strategy has strained an already tense relationship between Washington and Tehran. It appears that in lieu of a strategy, the Trump Administration has chosen military escalation. The Administration must clearly articulate how this action, and potential future actions, will protect U.S. global interests while ensuring the safety and security of our personnel in the region and worldwide. The American people deserve to know why President Trump has brought us to the brink of another war, and under what authority.”
- Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.): “But Congress didn’t authorize and American people don’t want a war with Iran.”
- Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.): “While we are still learning details about what occurred, one thing is clear: only Congress can declare war and the President has not sought any such authorization. In July, I was proud to stand with colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, to prohibit the Administration from entering into a conflict with Iran without proper congressional authorization …. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I’ll be asking the hard questions of this Administration to make sure we are supporting our diplomats and servicemembers, ensuring a strong national defense, and using force as the last resort.”
- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii): “It’s becoming more clear that our troops are really there to fight against Iran—once again, a war that Congress has not authorized.”
- Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.): “Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to escalate tensions in the region by assassinating Iranian General Qasem Soleimani without any notification to or approval from Congress is wrong, it will destabilize the region and further endanger the lives of innocent Americans, Iranians, and Iraqis.”
- Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.): “Congress alone has the authority to declare war, & we must reclaim our responsibility & say no to war with Iran.”