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 PompeoHillicon Valley: Agencies play catch-up over TikTok security concerns | Senate Dems seek sanctions on Russia over new election meddling | Pentagon unveils AI principles Senate Democrats urge Trump administration to impose sanctions on Russia for election interference President Trump's assault on checks and balances: Five acts in four weeks 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 PaulCongress set for clash over surveillance reforms Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Pelosi names first-ever House whistleblower ombudsman director 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 KaineThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' Democratic senators ask FDA to ban device used to shock disabled students 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 ShanahanEsper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Defense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall 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 LeeSanders says idea he can't work with Republicans is 'total nonsense' Congress set for clash over surveillance reforms The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (R-Utah), Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyInterest rate caps are popular — for good reason Overnight Energy: EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Trump budget calls for slashing funds for climate science centers | House Dems urge banks not to fund drilling in Arctic refuge Democratic senators criticize plan that could expand Arctic oil and gas development MORE (D-Ore.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders says idea he can't work with Republicans is 'total nonsense' Sanders defends Castro comments in wake of backlash from some Democrats Sanders releases list of how to pay for his proposals MORE (I-Vt.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders steamrolls to South Carolina primary, Super Tuesday Sunday shows - 2020 spotlight shifts to South Carolina Murphy: No concerns with Sanders on gun policy 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 RubioGOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman Agencies play catch-up over security concerns with TikTok Sanders: 'Unfair to simply say everything is bad' in Cuba under Castro 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 GrahamThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Congress set for clash over surveillance reforms Five things to know about emerging US, Taliban peace deal 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 EngelOvernight Defense: Army says it isn't investigating Vindman | White House outlines legal justification for Soleimani strike | Service member dies in Africa Trump administration outlines legal justification for Soleimani strike Pompeo to testify on Iran in February 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.”