Staff Columnist

Congress gave Trump keys to the American war machine

Generations of bipartisan legislators created awesome powers Trump is now exercising

Anti-war activist protest at Times Square in New York on January 4, 2020. (Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
Anti-war activist protest at Times Square in New York on January 4, 2020. (Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

President Donald Trump’s decision last week to order the killing of a top Iranian military official was a terrible misstep that needlessly escalates tension with our Middle Eastern foes. Stupid as it may be, the killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani also appears to have been in line with U.S. law.

Trump did not invent for himself the authority to assassinate bad guys. That awesome power was gifted to him before he ever took office, by multiple generations of bipartisan legislators, including Iowa’s members of Congress.

To legally justify the military action, the Trump administration has a long list of laws and precedents to lean on. Congress has long exhibited an unfortunate habit of abdicating its power to declare war to the White House, a custom that was further entrenched after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

In the days following Soleimani’s death, Trump administration officials have cited the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which authorized the Iraq War, as the legal basis for the operation.

Only one Iowan — former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, an anti-war Republican — voted against the 2002 resolution. Five other Republicans and the lone Democrat in Iowa’s delegation at the time voted in favor.

Just last month, Congress approved and Trump signed the latest National Defense Authorization Act, which was stripped of proposed language meant to restrict military intervention in Iran. All of Iowa’s sitting federal lawmakers — three Democrats and three Republicans — voted for final passage of the bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced over the weekend she will call a vote on a resolution to limit Trump’s military authority in Iran. It’s a great idea and should be approved, but one wonders why Congress hasn’t clawed back its war powers before now.


To iterate the obvious, most members of Congress can only seem to find their anti-war picket signs when a president of the opposing party is directing the missiles. An admirable few have been consistent in their opposition to endless war.

In 2017, a bipartisan group of nearly 50 lawmakers — representing some of the most progressive and most conservative factions in their parties — wrote a letter to House leadership asking to reconsider the use of the AUMF as justification for attacks the Obama administration carried out against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“Congress cannot continue to remain silent and ignore its responsibilities under the Constitution. Engaging in these debates is the minimum we owe to the American people and our brave men and women in uniform,” lawmakers wrote.

None of Iowa’s representatives — three Republicans and one Democrat at the time — signed the letter.

The legal issues surrounding war and presidential power are complicated. Legal scholars and average citizens alike should continue to debate the Constitutionality and efficacy of Trump’s actions in and around Iran.

However, it’s dishonest and cynically partisan to frame the latest U.S. military adventure as a uniquely aggressive expansion of executive authority. Doing so only gives cover to lawmakers who have willingly rendered themselves impotent to oversee U.S. foreign policy, as required by the Constitution.

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