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Can Congress limit Trump’s ability to authorize military action on Iran?

As tensions between the U.S. and Iran persist, both the House and the Senate are pursuing measures to restrict President Trump’s war powers -- but there are differing opinions about what they should entail. How has presidential authority been leveraged and limited in past U.S. military engagements? Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to discuss that topic as well as the latest on impeachment.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been just a week since President Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. That has led Congress to reexamine the president's authority in ordering military attacks.

    Our own Lisa Desjardins is here now to break down what actions Congress is taking to address the president's war powers, and what we know about upcoming impeachment in the Senate.

    And so, Lisa, welcome.

    So the House is voting tonight on whether to limit the president's ability to take military action against Iraq.

    Tell us, what exactly does this measure do and how much teeth does it have?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is not a large resolution. It's only over four pages' long, but it is powerful.

    The House here is asserting its war powers and voting to limit, in its wording, the engagement of hostilities in or against Iran. What this revolution would do is, the would say, the president cannot engage with Iran unless two things happen: one, there is a declaration of war by Congress, or, two, there's an imminent threat.

    Both of those are in this. Now, one question about this, though, Judy. It's a concurrent resolution. That's a special resolution that the president doesn't sign. It only has teeth if the Senate also passes a concurrent resolution.

    Judy, that's not the current plan in the Senate right now. Those who think that the president needs some limit on the engagement with Iran, like Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, they're going a different route right now.

    And they're going to propose just a normal resolution that the president would have to sign that would limit his powers. That's because it would get a fast track in the Senate. That kind of resolution has an easier vote. We expect that kind of vote as soon as next week in the Senate.

    But the point is, both chambers are moving right now and discussing debating the president's war powers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, of course, this raises the larger question about the role of Congress in any military deployment, U.S. military deployment overseas.

    Remind us again, what did President Trump say about his justification for doing this on his own, without Congress?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    We — Nick Schifrin reported on the night of the strike what we were hearing from the Department of Defense. Since then, the administration has told Congress as well that it has two justifications, one being the Article 2 power of the President Trump the Constitution as commander in chief, his power to protect U.S. forces from imminent threat.

    The other rationale is the 2002 authorization of military force — sometimes, we say a AUMF. That was about Iraq and Saddam Hussein and also fighting terror, talking about Saddam Hussein having protected members of al-Qaida leading up to 9/11.

    But it was primarily about Saddam Hussein. So, the argument there is that this happened on Iraq's territory, even though it was a strike at an official from Iran who has been labeled a terrorist.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So that's the president's justification. What is the thinking in Congress about that?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There is a very hot debate. There is concern by both sides that Congress has let presidents, not just this one, but many in a row, go too far, and not express its own oversight of war powers.

    But, right now, there is a divide over whether this justification is legal.

    Let's hear both from a leading Republican and Democrat on this issue, especially of that 2002 AUMF.

  • Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.:

    Obviously, there's a clear legal authority in the AUMF going back to 2002, where the president has the ability to take action against terrorists in Iraq. President Obama used that authority, which we supported. President Trump used that authority to take out Soleimani.

  • Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.:

    That authorization never intended, even as bad as it was then, given that there were no weapons of mass destruction, never authorized the use of force against any country, any hostile country or any country that was based or had personnel or officials or a presence in Iran or any other country.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So that's a debate over the authorization of military force, if that applies here.

    But, Judy, I want to make some — I want to put out some important reporting about the idea of immanence and Article 2 powers.

    Judy, the two sides differ on this. Republicans do think there was an imminent threat coming. They feel very confident about that.

    But Judy, here's the thing. If I talked to Republicans and Democrats yesterday who were briefed, they told me that that evidence is publicly available evidence. It's the idea that Soleimani and those who backed him and those who directed had been increasingly hostile to America, that there was a trend leading to certainty by some, a debate by others, that he was going to act again.

    It wasn't necessarily a special kind of attack or notification. It was what he'd been doing in public that the president is arguing led to an imminent threat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So that's one larger question.

    But an even bigger question is U.S. engagement overseas going back many years.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Give us some of the historical context.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    I think we really see — and everyone agrees, as I say — that Congress has been ceding more and more power to presidents. And in part that's because of how the system is designed.

    The Constitution says, Congress can declare war. However, the president, as the commander in chief, has used more broad powers. And when a Congress is divided, as we have seen so often, they haven't been able to limit it.

    First, let's talk about some conflicts that have not been congressionally approved, well-known, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. This was when we sort of start to see the presidents flex this kind of military power.

    What has been approved, many people know, World Wars I and II, the Gulf War in 1991, led by President H.W. Bush, the response to 9/11 and to terror in 2001 and 2002.

    But, Judy, coming back to me, I want to say that that 9/11 and terror approval, that is what has been stretched since then to apply to all of these conflicts, Yemen, Syria, and Niger, all around the world. And this is something that both parties have a real question about whether that authorization needs to end and perhaps a new one begin or somehow Congress flex more power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to think about there.

    And, finally, Lisa, and just quickly, aside from all this, there is the question of an impeachment trial in the Senate. Remind us quickly where that stands tonight.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, I'm told, doesn't have any special information, but did tell Republicans today, his Senate Republicans, that they should be ready for a trial to begin as soon as next week.

    We are waiting to see House Speaker Pelosi transmit those articles, as well as the name of her managers. She said today she will probably do that soon. But we don't have anything on that timing.

    I do think it won't be this weekend. But we — next week, everyone should be ready.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But looking like maybe next week?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It could be. It's up to Speaker Pelosi, but that's certainly what Mitch McConnell has told Senate Republicans they need to be ready for.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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