President Trump’s airstrikes on Syria in April did not require congressional approval because they did “not rise to the level of a war in the constitutional sense,” the Justice Department said in a memo released Friday.
“The president could lawfully direct airstrikes on facilities associated with Syria’s chemical weapons capability because he had reasonably determined that the use of force would be in the national interest and that the anticipated hostilities would not rise to the level of a war in the constitutional sense,” Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel of the Office of Legal Counsel wrote in the memo.
The 22-page statement represents the Trump administration’s most comprehensive public assessment yet of its view on the president’s war-making powers.
At issue are the April 13 missile strikes U.S., French and British forces carried out against three Syrian facilities associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program.
The barrage of 105 missiles was a response to a chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that killed dozens. The West has blamed the attack Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the Justice Department, the strikes were “sufficiently limited” in nature, scope and duration to not rise to the level of requiring congressional approval under the Constitution, which grants Congress the power to declare war.
“Given the absence of ground troops, the limited mission and time frame, and the efforts to avoid escalation, the anticipated nature, scope, and duration of these airstrikes did not rise to the level of a ‘war’ for constitutional purposes,” Engel wrote.
The strikes, Engel said, were also in the national interest of promoting regional stability, preventing further declines in the region’s “humanitarian catastrophe” and deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons.
The April strikes marked the second instance in which Trump ordered a missile strike on Syrian regime targets following a chemical weapons attack. The Justice Department memo on the 2017 strike has not been released.
After both strikes, several bipartisan lawmakers questioned whether Trump had the legal authority to carry out the action without Congress’ approval.
On Friday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), one of the most vocal lawmakers on the issue, called the Justice Department’s analysis “nonsense.”
“Is there any doubt that America would view a foreign nation firing missiles at targets on American soil as an act of war?” he said in a statement.
“The ludicrous claim that this president can magically assert ‘national interest’ and redefine war to exclude missile attacks and thereby bypass Congress should alarm us all. This is further proof that Congress must finally take back its authority when it comes to war.”
Presidents in both parties have expanded the scope of their ability to use military force without congressional approval.
Former President Obama argued military intervention in Libya did not require congressional approval because U.S. forces were in a support role and because it was supported by international law with a U.N. Security Council resolution.
BY REBECCA KHEEL – 06/01/18