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Trump faces skepticism about Iran war authority from both parties

Growing tensions between the United States and Iran are raising new questions about what legal authority the Trump administration could use for a military strike.

Tensions between lawmakers and the Trump administration spilled over publicly on Wednesday when Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, would not directly answer multiple questions on whether the administration believes the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) applies to Iran.

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“If the use of military force is necessary to defend U.S. national security interest, we will do everything that we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers and we will comply with the law,” Hook told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Pressed on the issue, Hook referred lawmakers to the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser. The grilling from members came after Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo knocks Turkey in NATO speech: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates US to temporarily withdraw some embassy personnel in Baghdad: report MORE told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iran’s connections to al Qaeda are “very real.”

“They have hosted al Qaeda. They have permitted al Qaeda to transit their country. There’s no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and al Qaeda. Period. Full stop,” Pompeo told the Senate panel earlier this year.

Critics argue Pompeo and other officials have been laying the groundwork to apply the 2001 war authorization to attack Tehran. They say Pompeo and other officials have done so by publicly and privately talking up ties between al Qaeda and Iran.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Senate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale McConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters that it would be “inappropriate” for the administration to try to use the 2001 authorization against Iran, adding that “there are no credible links” between al Qaeda and Iran.

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“I think every president tries to make the case that Congress can’t tell them what to do on foreign policy or war. They’re wrong. ... I will oppose any president, Republican or Democrat, who thinks they can go to war without congressional approval,” Paul added.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Senate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (D-Va.), a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said the administration was floating “a real bizarre stretch” to try to link al Qaeda and Iran.

“It’s pretty clear from arguments they have been making ... that they do not want to come to Congress, so they want to figure out what they can do without coming to Congress, so they’ve sort of advanced what I would consider a real bizarre stretch of an argument about the 2001 authorization,” Kaine said.

Tensions with Iran are running high after Tehran’s nuclear agency announced it will soon exceed the amount of low-enriched uranium it is allowed to stockpile unless Europe intervenes to remove economic pressure on Iran. Separately, an oil tanker attack near the strategic chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz has also inflamed tensions. The Trump administration blames the attack on Tehran and some leading Democrats have said the intelligence supports that belief.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanProgressive House Democrats urge Biden against Defense chief with contractor ties Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper House Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis MORE announced this week that the administration will send an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East for defensive purposes. The development raised a new round of questions from lawmakers about the administration’s end strategy.

Kaine, Paul and Sens. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge MORE (R-Utah), Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyDemocrats introduce legislation to strike slavery exception in 13th Amendment Overnight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Supreme Court declines to hear case challenging unlimited super PAC fundraising MORE (D-Ore.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders press secretary: 'Principal concern' of Biden appointments should be policy DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Senate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale Overnight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire MORE (D-Conn.) sent Trump a letter saying they are “concerned” about the chances of a military conflict with Iran.

“Given that growing risk, we want to reiterate that, as of this date, Congress has not authorized war with Iran and no current statutory authority allows the U.S. to conduct hostilities against the Government of Iran,” the senators wrote.

Hook tried to reassure lawmakers on Wednesday that the United States is “not seeking military action” but held that the administration beefed up the U.S. military presence in the region “so that we could protect ourselves if attacked.”

He also argued that the deployments have “helped to decrease the risk of miscalculation” and that “a lot of what we were concerned about at the time has not come to pass.”

Trump isn’t the first president to clash with Congress over the breadth of his military authority. The Obama administration previously cited the 2001 authorization as the legal basis for military action against terrorist groups in Syria.

And Trump does have the backing of several Republican senators, who have echoed the administration’s concern about Iran’s behavior.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale GOP urges Trump not to tank defense bill over tech fight Pressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, argued on Wednesday that as long as a strike from Iran was in self-defense, Trump doesn’t need congressional approval.

“They don’t have to, because they’re not talking about offensive activities, they’re talking about defensive activities,” Rubio told reporters. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBiden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country The Memo: Harris moves signal broad role as VP Former US attorney asks for probe of allegations Graham pressured Georgia official MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and Trump ally, also brushed off questions about legal authorization, telling reporters: “I’m good to go on that.” 

But at the House hearing, several Democrats warned Hook the administration does not have authorization to strike Iran.

“If the administration sees a threat that requires military force against Iran, your first stop is right here on Capitol Hill,” Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelRep. David Scott wins House Agriculture Committee gavel Democrats elect Meeks as first Black Foreign Affairs chairman The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates MORE (D-N.Y.) said. “There is no law, no aging authorization from another conflict — that’s the 2001 AUMF — that could apply to war against Iran.” 

Democrats have also said they plan to bring an amendment to the House floor when they debate the annual defense policy bill that would clarify the administration does not have authority to conduct military action against Iran.

The House on Wednesday approved a $1 trillion spending package that would repeal the 2001 AUMF, though the bill stands little chance of becoming law.

Foreign policy has been a sticking point between Trump and Congress, with the Senate poised to vote to block the president’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia as soon as Thursday.

Paul pointed to the arms sales vote as evidence of a “coalition building in Congress, particularly in the Senate, in opposition to unlimited executive power on foreign policy.”

Kaine predicted on Wednesday that if the administration tries to use the 2001 AUMF for military actions against Iran, Trump would face a vote in opposition on the Senate floor.

“You could use the war powers resolution framework,” he said. “So I think what you would see if they blunder us into an unnecessary war with Iran and they try to do an end run in Congress we would have war powers resolution, privileged motion, that we could put on the floor.”