After the United States launched missile strikes Thursday evening against the Syrian government in response to what officials said was President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, some Democratic lawmakers denounced the attack as “unconstitutional” and “unlawful.”
Yet while some Democrats objected to how Trump authorized the strike, many either condoned or did not take issue with the military action itself, suggesting instead that Assad’s actions warranted United States intervention.
Democratic leaders issued statements indicating varying levels of support for the strike, while still calling for the president to seek congressional authorization if the administration plans to escalate its military involvement in Syria. Neither Chuck Schumer, nor Nancy Pelosi, the highest ranking congressional Democrats, condemned the attack or said it was the wrong decision.
Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, said on Thursday night that “making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do,” while House Minority Leader Pelosi said the strike appeared “to be a proportional response” to the chemical weapons attack.
Senator Elizabeth Warren said the “Syrian regime must be held accountable,” while Senator Mark Warner said that Assad “could not go unpunished,” and Senator Dick Durbin called it a “measured response.
Rather than questioning the need for military action, many Democrats instead questioned whether the Trump administration’s strategy will be effective, and emphasized the need for congressional involvement if the administration escalates the conflict. The Constitution sets up a check on executive branch authority to initiate military action by providing that while the president “shall be the commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy,” Congress has the power to “declare war.” The War Powers Resolution limits the president’s ability to send American forces into harm’s way without consulting Congress. In practice however, presidents, including Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, have launched unilateral military operations without authorization from Congress.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said the airstrikes “are not a sufficient answer on their own to the challenge posed by the civil war in Syria and the Assad regime’s war crimes,” and called on Trump to formulate “a clear and coherent strategy.” Schumer called on the administration “to come up with a strategy and consult Congress before implementing it,” while Pelsoi insisted the president must obtain an Authorization for Use of Military Force from Congress if he “intends to escalate the U.S. military’s involvement in Syria,” and warned that “the crisis in Syria will not be resolved by one night of airstrikes. The killing will not stop without a comprehensive political solution to end the violence.”
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, raised constitutional and legal concerns over the strike, calling the action “unconstitutional” and asserting that “the president’s failure to seek congressional approval is unlawful,” on Twitter Thursday evening. But in an interview on CNN Friday morning, Kaine said that “from a moral standpoint” he believes the strike “was the right thing to do.” “It is the right thing to do to try to deter Assad from war crimes,” he said, adding: “President Trump doing this, finally waking up to the atrocities in Syria, is a good thing.” He warned, however, that “He should not have done this without coming to Congress.”
The reaction from Democrats makes clear that the modern-day party is not reflexively opposed to military intervention. Hillary Clinton, who was criticized by the party’s left flank during the presidential election for a tendency to be overly supportive of military action, even said earlier in the day on Thursday that the United States should “take out” Assad’s airfields.
“I really believe that we should have, and still should take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people,” she said. The collective Democratic reaction in Congress indicates that the party’s mainstream remains largely in lockstep with its former presidential standard bearer’s approach to foreign policy.
Not every Democrat pressed Trump to further articulate a strategy or involve Congress in the future. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said “last night’s military action in Syria met my standards for responding to atrocity: a limited action; with a clear objective.” And Florida Senator Bill Nelson offered unqualified praise on Thursday evening, saying in a tweet that he hopes it will teach “Assad not to use chemical weapons again.”
Some liberal Democratic lawmakers did, however, object to the use of military force in its own right. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii flatly stated: “a military response is not the answer” to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, warning that the strike “risks deeper escalation without any sense of direction or objective.”
Representative Ted Lieu of California called the strike an act of “war” and reacted to the news of the missile launch on Thursday evening by tweeting, “If true, this is UNCONSTITUTIONAL.” Later, he wrote on Twitter: “Assad is still in power. What was purpose of strike? How much did it cost? Was Assad a threat to the U.S. homeland? How does this achieve peace?”