The Nation: Donald Trump Committed Another Impeachable Offense This Week

June 27, 2017
In The News

Donald Trump at a joint news conference with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House, May 18, 2017. (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)

President Donald Trump committed an impeachable offense this week, but you likely haven’t heard about it on cable news.

This offense did not involve the firing the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or conspiring with the attorney general to facilitate the firing that even some Republicans saw as a potential obstruction of justice, or bragging to the Russians about how “pressure” was “taken off” by that firing (as the New York Times reported Friday), or any of the other evidences of presidential maladministration that scream out for an accountability moment.

Those developments may have gotten the impeachment clock ticking, but there was another event—nothing to do with Russia—that should have set off the alarm on that impeachment clock. It involves Donald Trump’s refusal to respect the requirements that the U.S. Constitution places on presidents when it comes to matters of war and peace.

Trump is disregarding the Constitution's most serious requirements regarding war and peace.

On Wednesday, US forces carried out airstrikes on pro-government forces in Syria.

This military action, in what the world well understands as a war zone, was not authorized by Congress. Though the Constitution explicitly explains that it is the legislative branch, not the executive, that has the power to initiate new military actions, Trump has steered the United States deeper and deeper into the Syrian conflict.

Congressman Ted Lieu, a former active duty officer in the US Air Force who currently serves as a Colonel in the Reserves, an expert in military law who graduated magna cum laude after serving as editor-in-chief of the law review at Georgetown University, the recipient of four American Jurisprudence Awards and a member of both the House Judiciary Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had the best immediate response.

After initial reports that US official had confirmed “that the US-led Coalition hit Assad regime forces with air strikes in southern Syria today,” Lieu responded on Twitter: “If true, this is FRICKIN ILLEGAL. Trump does not have Congressional authorization to attack Syria, a country that has not attacked US.”

The congressman later issued a statement, in which he announced that: “For the second time in as many months, the US military has conducted airstrikes against pro-Assad forces in Syria. The Trump Administration does not have congressional authorization to carry out military strikes against the Assad regime. Furthermore, the situation that led to today’s strike is precisely why I warned against getting further entangled in the Syrian civil war without a clear strategy. President Trump needs to explain his plan for Syria to Congress and the American people.”

What Lieu says is true. And he is not alone in expressing concern. After Trump ordered military strikes on Syria in April, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and CPC first vice chair Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, argued that: “In the absence of an imminent threat to the United States, the president must seek Congressional authorization prior to any act of war. Trump failed to seek, much less gain, Congressional authorization.”

“If President Trump believes that US military actions should be utilized against the Assad regime, he should immediately call the House and Senate back into session to debate and vote on the use of military force,” the CPC leaders explained. “These unauthorized attacks could pull the United States into a regional war and escalate this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.”

Republican Congressman Justin Amash, of Michigan, argued that in April that: “Airstrikes are an act of war. Atrocities in Syria cannot justify departure from Constitution, which vests in Congress power to commence war.” Republican Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, argued at the same time that “the president needs congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution, and I call on him to come to Congress for a proper debate.”

Trump did not answer the call.

Rather, the commander-in-chief is presiding over the unauthorized expansion of U.S. military involvement in Syria. In so doing, he is disregarding the Constitution’s most serious dictates regarding war and peace.

The commentariat can and will debate when a president’s refusal to seek congressional authorization for military action becomes impeachable. (There will even be attempts by the apologists for presidential overreach to make convoluted claims about how past authorizations of the use of military force somehow apply to every new conflict.) But, in Trump’s case, there is no evidence to suggest that he will respect the requirements of the Constitution. As such, an article of impeachment is justified — a point that was often made by former Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Texas, when he moved articles of impeachment to challenge unauthorized war making by previous presidents.

Gonzalez did not get very far with those challenges because, of course, impeachment is a political, rather than a legal, process. It requires a level of respect for the Constitution that is rarely displayed by leaders of the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate — and that is certainly not being displayed at this point by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. But political processes evolve when popular pressure rises, and it is worth noting that resistance to talk of impeachment is far greater today on Capitol Hill than in the rest of the United States. Indeed, the new Public Policy Polling survey finds 48 percent of Americans want Trump impeached while just 41 percent oppose impeachment.