WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump’s military strike against Syria drew strong push-back from an odd mix of libertarian Republicans, Democrats and the far-right conservatives who have long insisted on Congress’ constitutional authority for acts of war.
Trump burnished an “America first” foreign policy during his 2016 campaign, warning that rival Hillary Clinton would dangerously order U.S. soldiers into international conflicts. He was often critical of former President Barack Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis in 2013 and urged him at the time to seek congressional approval for any military action.
But the president said Thursday night that the airstrikes were in the “vital national security interest” of the U.S. and accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of having “choked” his own citizens in a chemical attack.
Trump’s decision to launch the airstrikes on a Syrian military base represented an about-face at the start of his presidency and angered Republicans and Democrats, who said the U.S. Constitution gave Congress sole power to declare war. They urged Trump to come to Congress to get authorization for military force.
“The Constitution is very clear that war originates in the legislature,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a leader of the party’s non-interventionist wing who challenged Trump for the GOP nomination.
Paul, who called the Syria strike unconstitutional, said today before a closed-door briefing for lawmakers that they weren’t learning about the intelligence that led the president to order the strike until the day after the missiles were launched.
“You vote before you go to war, not after you go to war,” Paul told reporters.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said, “If there’s no strategy on Syria, he clearly made this decision based off of an emotional reaction to the images on TV, and it should worry everyone about the quixotic nature of this administration’s foreign policy.”
Any attempt by Trump to push a new war powers resolution through Congress would be difficult. Obama asked lawmakers two years ago to formally authorize war against the Islamic State but they never acted on the proposal.
The Trump administration had only days earlier suggested that Assad’s hold on power was a political reality. And Trump, in a December rally in North Carolina after his election, vowed that the U.S. would “stop racing to topple … foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.”
Trump’s transformation did not sit well with Republican supporters in Congress and in the media who had backed his non-interventionist stances during the campaign. Conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter noted on Twitter that the president had campaigned on not getting involved in the Middle East because it would help enemies of the U.S. and lead to more refugees.
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, once considered for press secretary in the Trump White House, tweeted: “Missiles flying. (Marco) Rubio’s happy. (John) McCain ecstatic. Hillary’s on board. A complete policy change in 48 hrs.”
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., questioned how it would affect Trump’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State group.
“Didn’t the missile attack just make the situation better for ISIS?” Massie tweeted today.
In Palm Beach, Florida, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the action was “very decisive, justified and proportional” and said Article II of the Constitution allowed the military action in support of U.S. national security.
An outside group formed to back Trump’s agenda, America First Policies, tweeted a photo of Trump departing Air Force One with the words: “Enough is enough. This is a POTUS who is not afraid to act.”
But Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., disputed the Trump administration’s justification.
“The idea this chemical weapons attack affects the national security of the United States is fairly tenuous,” Amash said. “It’s a rather flimsy argument.”
Republican leaders, many of whom back a more hawkish view of foreign policy, praised Trump’s actions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he supported “both the action and objective,” while House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the strike “appropriate and just.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, another Trump rival during the 2016 Republican primaries, said he told the president he had done “the right thing” during a phone call Thursday night after the airstrikes.
The South Carolina lawmaker, who has favored a more aggressive stance in Syria, said Trump’s opposition to being an interventionist during the campaign needed to shift.
“I think what he’s got to realize is, the campaign rhetoric has all been replaced by reality,” Graham said. “The reality in Syria is if we end this conflict where Iran dominates Damascus it never ends. You cannot leave Assad in power.”