For a constitutional lawyer, the Trump administration requires a crash course in obscure parts of the document—the Emoluments Clause? The “Inferior Officers” Clause? Really?
But equally challenging is the need to keep turning the conversation back to constitutional questions that people are sick of hearing about—and, even worse, have tacitly agreed to consider irrelevant. “To see what is under one’s nose,” George Orwell wrote in 1946, “requires a constant struggle.” Orwell didn’t add that trying to point out what is under our noses can turn one into a kind of Ancient Mariner at whose approach both friend and foe are tempted to flee.
But here goes: Trump did not have the authority to order any kind of strike on Syria. Congressional authorization was needed before any use of force against Syria; Friday’s attack was unconstitutional. And his pledge that the United States “is prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents”—that is, a unilateral declaration of long-range war aims and a pledge of long-term military involvement—is about as gross a violation of the Constitution as I can think of.
The fact that Trump ordered a one-off missile strike a year ago doesn’t change that calculation. The fact that almost no one in Congress spoke up when he did doesn’t change that calculation. The fact that foreign-policy commentators fawned on that decision doesn’t change that calculation. The Constitution still requires congressional authorization for an attack on another country. The requirement is not a formality. It is in the Constitution for a reason. Congress’s failure to assert its prerogatives is—even though it may have become a craven habit—a matter of life or death for a self-governing republic.