President Trump told Congress on Sunday that he was exercising commander-in-chief powers when he ordered strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons capability, insisting the action on Saturday was “in the vital national security” interests of the U.S.
The claim — which is different from the justification administration officials gave last week — is likely to be quickly tested on Capitol Hill, where senators were preparing to debate presidential war powers before the strikes.
Democrats and Republicans say it’s time to update the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that granted President George W. Bush the power to go after al Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations. That AUMF, as it’s known in Washington-speak, has been stretched to justify U.S. military involvement in Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, Libya and the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But going after the Assad regime, which is not an international terrorist organization, crosses lines that Congress will closely scrutinize.
Mr. Trump asserted a broad power in a letter to lawmakers.
“I acted pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations and as commander in chief and chief executive and in the vital national security and foreign policy interests of the United States to promote the stability of the region, to deter the use and proliferation of chemical weapons, and to avert a worsening of the region’s current humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.
He said he reserved the right to “take additional action, as necessary and appropriate.”
Some Democrats say Mr. Trump already has gone too far.
“It is Congress, not the president, which has the constitutional responsibility for making war,” Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont said after the strikes, leading a charge from a number of liberal members of Congress who said the president needed to be brought to heel.
Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, called the military move “neither constitutional nor wise.”
But most other lawmakers — including many Democrats — stood by Mr. Trump, for now, saying the limited nature of the strikes can probably be justified, but anything further will require Congress to become involved.
“Certainly if he wishes to go any further he does need to work with Congress,” Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “The airstrikes, I’m comfortable at this point with that. But as many of my colleagues have also stated we need a new AUMF. We need to address this situation. And the president does need to come to Congress, and we need to have those discussions.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was slated to begin debating a new AUMF to replace the 2001 authorization as early as this week. Lawmakers were pushing to have a draft version ready for discussion, with the possibility of a committee vote next week.
Presidents have long exercised powers to attack in retaliation for attacks on U.S. interests and have even claimed the ability to launch a pre-emptive strike to head off such an attack on U.S. interests. But Mr. Trump’s expansive claim of an ability to attack when he deems a “vital” interest at stake — without any immediate threat to the U.S. — is likely to dominate the debate.
Complicating matters this time is the changing nature of the administration’s defense.
Testifying to the Senate last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo — who is also a Harvard-trained lawyer — said Mr. Trump had power to conduct the strike under the 2001 AUMF.
Mr. Pompeo said that AUMF covered airstrikes like the one Saturday but would not cover an expansive combat commitment in Syria.
Hours after the strikes, though, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Mr. Trump authorized the strikes “as our commander in chief.”
“Under the Article II of the Constitution, we believe the president has every reason to defend vital American interests, and that is what he did tonight,” Mr. Mattis said.
“What’s to stop him from starting a bombing campaign against Iran or North Korea or some other nation and saying, ‘Well, I think it’s in the national interest?’” Sen. Tim Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “It’s illegal because he didn’t come and ask permission.”
The Constitution makes the president the commander in chief but grants Congress the power to declare war. There has always been tension between those two roles.
While they weren’t asked for approval, some key members of Congress were at least notified. Vice President Mike Pence made phone calls to congressional leaders just ahead of Mr. Trump’s televised announcement Friday night.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was briefed last week by the CIA director about the evidence demonstrating that the Syrian regime was behind the chemical weapons attack that provoked Mr. Trump’s response.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the upper chamber, said he was called by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Mr. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the reaction to Mr. Trump’s strike was instructive.
In 2013, when the Assad regime first used chemical weapons, President Obama initially concluded that he had the ability to strike Syria, just as Mr. Trump claims. But Mr. Obama rethought that position and ended up going to Congress for permission.
The Democrat-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed Mr. Obama, but he met with resistance elsewhere on Capitol Hill. The issue faded after a deal was struck — with Russia acting as guarantor — for Syria to give up its chemical capabilities.
Mr. Trump said last week that the strikes were meant to enforce Mr. Obama’s original “red line” in Syria and to hold Russia accountable for failing in that 2013 promise to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Mr. Durbin said he backed Mr. Obama’s original plans to strike in 2013 but added that Mr. Trump’s decision last week “still raises the constitutional question of his authority to unilaterally attack another nation without congressional authorization.”
Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom was starting its own debate after polling showed the public opposed Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to join the U.S. and France in the strikes.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn called the military action “legally debatable” and said Parliament must pass legislation to expand scrutiny of the government’s military actions.
Mrs. May is slated to address Parliament on Monday.
• Bradford Richardson and Dan Boylan contributed to this article.
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