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On War Powers & Credibility

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 10, 2020

Other than watching television images of people burning American flags, nothing probably upsets Donald Trump more than hearing that Congress once again wants to clip his presidential wings. As we have seen, Trump thinks he can do whatever he wants in office, including ordering assassinations overseas.

And equally, in the opposite direction, we should be inured to thinking that other than applauding the removal of an international bad guy like Qassim Suleimani, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is most worried when she sees the president overstepping his role, ignoring Congress’ constitutional role in declaring that war is on.

Stir in some real anger from some vocal senators, Republican and Democrat, about the lack of executive branch intelligence details on this week’s escalating tensions with Iran, and you have the makings of a different front in the White House wars — this one with Congress.

All this is to try to explain a vote on a resolution dealing with war powers — a move that is embarrassing to Trump, but that by itself lacks the punch to stop the White House from doing as it will. A positive vote in the House for such a resolution in the House normally might be expected to die in the Republican-dominant Senate, but Team Trump has been so arrogant with Congress, even that bulwark is in a bit of doubt. In any event, Trump will veto it, as might other recent presidents, though Pelosi selected a type of bill that seems not to require a presidential acceptance.

After all, even war is a partisan issue these days,

Congress generally is split along party lines about what they are hearing at briefings, about whether there was indeed an imminent plot against Americans, and about whether killing Suleimani eliminates that threat. It’s not just the war powers act itself causing partisan consternation, it’s the credibility issue. How do you even respond to an administration in which a general writes the Iraqi government saying Americans are withdrawing when the Secretary of Defense says the opposite a couple of hours later?

The resolutions, sponsored in the House by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-MI, a former CIA and Defense Department analyst specializing in Shia militias and in the Senate by Tim Kaine, D-VA, would “reassert Congress’s long-established oversight responsibilities by mandating that if no further Congressional action is taken, the Administration’s military hostilities with regard to Iran cease within 30 days.”


There is something exceptionally odd about Trump all-but-declaring victory over Iran. Trump and Republicans generally seem to ignore that those precise missiles launched against U.S. bases in Iraq could as easily have been aimed just as precisely at the barracks rather than aimed to miss them. Trump would have insisted then on responding with yet more escalation, and an undeclared war would be on.

That would make these votes in Congress over war powers much more pointed than theoretical.

What most prompted this debate over war powers was the intentional snub of top congressional leaders from both parties, but particularly Democrats, that Trump had had ordered an execution by missile. The so-called Gang of Eight, the top lawmakers across both parties, never was informed. Details were shared broadly with Congress only in the last day or so, and that was widely described as too general and not useful.

Adding insult, Trump barely met the 48-hour deadline required by the War Powers Act to tell Congress about the strike with a document was kept classified. No version was released to the public, prompting Democrats to call for declassifying the notification and releasing it.

Trump event sent a tweet that said it should serve as “legal notice” that the White House intends to respond to any retributive actions by Iran.

It seems nuts on its face that at a time of public fear over traded military strikes, we’re also trying to deal with a constitutional question over how much power goes to each branch of government. But then we’re also still trying to deal with a partisan standoff in the rules for the impeachment proceedings against Trump.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the head-scratching about a president acting under political siege from verifiable threats against U.S. security.

In short, we’re undergoing a huge question of credibility here, with national security, protection for our troops, and questions about what strategy we’re trying to achieve in the Middle East all mixing in together with all separations blurred.

There is a serious question of public safety at risk here.


By all that we understand as a society, this is a point at which we’re supposed to line up, unified, behind a president in directing troops in faraway and dangerous conditions.

But we can’t do that: There is a huge problem with public credibility we’re seeing play out in Washington as well as overseas.

As Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson opined, “An erratic, petulant, clueless president, manifestly unfit to serve as commander in chief, has sparked a high-stakes international crisis. Welcome to Donald Trump’s war.”

That credibility issue is not only a problem for Americans, but in guiding thought among our European allies who are generally remaining silent after three years of feeling the last of Trump’s diplomatic whip. Credibility is a serious issue for the Iraqis, whose Parliament and prime minister are indicating they want us out, now. And that kind of credibility for a U.S. government that will follow through is a big reason that will stop Iran from sitting down again in serious talks to restructure the now-failed 2013 agreements aimed at halting or delaying nuclear weapons development.

The credibility issue has shown itself in Trump tweets that, some 12,000 lies in office later, Trump wants us to accept unquestioningly. We have no evidence to believe that there was an imminent plot, thought that idea is believable, or that there is an overall plan for American interests in the Middle East.

White House credibility was made worse by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has liberally offered went television interviews to demand fealty to whichever of the various rationales is being used by the president for an assassination. Pompeo doubled down by arguing that Americans are safer today because of the Suleimani killing, ignoring the effects already spilling out in retribution.

The War Powers debate is capturing basic factual questions as well as a challenge to White House powers: Did Donald Trump, who regularly trashes U.S. intelligence for his own gut, act on impulse because he saw bad television images? Are we on edge of war because Trump is deflecting from impeachment news? Is Trump capable of seeing the down-the-line effects of his actions or hearing dissenting voices?

It is a debate over whether it is America that Trump wants to make great, or just Trumpville.


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