Trump has been raging at GOP senators, to frighten them away from taking new steps to rein in his authority to make war. This comes after the House passed a measure to compel Trump to seek congressional authorization for new hostilities against Iran, after Trump ordered the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani on the thinnest of pretexts.
The Senate is now set to vote on this measure. And believe it or not, a small group of GOP senators actually does support it, which could very well enable it to pass the Senate.
We know this, because on Wednesday, eight GOP senators joined with Democrats to support proceeding to debate on the measure.
But now one of Trump’s GOP allies in the Senate — Tom Cotton of Arkansas — is set to offer an amendment that would in effect render it a dead letter, according to Senate Democratic aides. Will those GOP senators go along?
Here’s why this matters: This is yet another area in which Trump is not just asserting unconstrained authority; he’s also openly and explicitly declaring that he feels zero obligation to offer any meaningful legal or substantive justification for acting on that authority.
Trump has contempt for institutional constraints
In the Soleimani killing, Trump rapidly discarded even the pretense of offering any such justification. After floating numerous rationales that quickly fell apart — such as the claim that an attack was imminent — Trump then blithely asserted that “it doesn’t really matter” whether he had any such justification, because of Soleimani’s “horrible past.”
Indeed, the rationales for the assassination were so laughably flimsy that a Republican senator — Mike Lee of Utah, who now supports limiting Trump’s war powers — erupted in a rage over an intelligence briefing to lawmakers that was supposed to justify it.
On top of all this, Trump delighted a rally crowd by mocking the very notion that he should seek congressional authorization for military actions — demonstrating seething contempt for the very idea that he should be subject to any institutional constraints at all while wielding the awesome power of the U.S. military.
All these things, of course, effectively demonstrate precisely why further constraints are urgently necessary.
The Senate war powers measure
The Senate bill — which is sponsored by Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — would impose such constraints. It would require the president to end any hostilities against Iran “unless explicitly authorized” by a congressional “declaration of war or specific authorization for the use of force.”
But the amendment from Cotton, which was forwarded by Democratic aides, would gut this. It would exempt from this requirement any “United States Forces engaged in operations directed at entities designated as foreign terrorist organizations.”
Senate Democratic aides fear this would allow clever White House lawyers to in effect create a backdoor justification for other, untold future military actions. Trump recently designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an arm of the Iranian military, a terrorist organization, a move that was opposed by some national security officials who thought it lacked deliberative justification.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is now sounding the alarm about the Cotton amendment. In a statement emailed to me, Sanders said:
This amendment completely defeats the purpose of the resolution, and that’s the point. It is unbelievable to me that instead of taking their constitutional duty seriously, some of my Republican friends want to give a reckless president even more power to launch unconstitutional war.
That’s the rub. Will GOP senators go along with this?
It’s true that the basis for this new Senate measure — the 1973 War Powers Act — has generally proved to be a flimsy constraint on presidents. It has been regularly abused by presidents in both parties, including Barack Obama, helped along by Congress’ regular abdication of its authority.
It’s also true that even if this measure does pass the Senate — even without it getting gutted by Cotton’s amendment — Trump will veto it.
But it would nonetheless constitute a powerful statement for a majority of both chambers of Congress, including the one controlled by the president’s party, to stand for the principle that Trump cannot exercise his warmaking authority without authorization. Forcing him to veto this would underscore for the country his dangerous efforts to consolidate his powers.
Right now, GOP senators are engaged in a massive exercise in excuse-making to explain away Trump’s latest abuse: his open and explicit command that Attorney General William P. Barr interfere in the case against longtime confidant Roger Stone.
This has focused intense attention on senators such as Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), all of whom have comically asserted in one way or another that they hope Trump has learned from his impeachment.
All of those three senators supported moving the new war powers measure to debate, and they appear to support the measure itself. That’s good.
But if and when Trump demands Senate approval of the Cotton amendment and/or urges final defeat of the broader measure, these good senators will now face another test of whether they are prepared to act to constrain him, rather than meekly hoping he has suddenly learned to constrain himself.
Update: The Senate just killed Cotton’s amendment, and CNN’s Manu Raju predicts that the overall measure will now pass:
Senate kills Tom Cotton amendment to war powers measure, 54-46, an amendment that proponents believed would have tanked the underlying bill, which is aimed at limit Trump’s authority to wage war against Iran. With the amendment defeated, bill should pass later today— Manu Raju (@mkraju) February 13, 2020
Update II: The Senate just passed the measure by 55 to 45, with eight Republicans joining Democrats to vote in favor. Because this measure isn’t precisely the same as the one that passed the House, this version will now go back to the lower chamber, where it’s expected to pass as well. Trump will all but certainly veto it. But this is still good news -- and an important statement.