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Did Trump have the authority to strike Syria? It’s ‘a gray area,’ says Sen. Coons

The airstrikes launched by the U.S., UK, and France to punish the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons have renewed questions about presidential warmaking powers. Lisa Desjardins reports on the reaction to the strikes, then talks to Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., about Congress’ role in authorizing military action, as well as concerns about protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to Syria and the aftermath of the airstrikes launched by the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France to punish Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons.

    As Lisa Desjardins reports, the military strikes have renewed questions about presidential war-making powers.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pentagon video shows the hail of missiles streaking toward Syria on Friday night. Their reported target? Three chemical research and production facilities in Damascus and Homs.

    Satellite pictures displayed the sites hit, here before the launch and then after they were leveled.

    At an unrelated event in Florida today, President Donald Trump described the strike as a success.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They didn't shoot one. You heard, oh, they shot 40 down, then they shot 15 down. They what — then I call, I say, did they? No, sir. Every single one hit its target.

    Think of that. How genius. Not one was shot down.


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meanwhile, a fact-finding team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Damascus over the weekend. It's on a mission to determine the chemical used in this month's attack on the suburb of Douma that left dozens dead.

    But, as of today, the team said Syria and Russia were blocking them from entering the area. The OPCW called an emergency meeting at The Hague today, and Britain's ambassador to the Netherlands called on the Syrian government and it Russian backers to give the inspectors the access they need.

  • Peter Wilson:

    Now, we are obviously keen to make sure that the inspectors have every means that they can to carry out their job and carry out their investigation as soon as possible. And we see no reason why they should not be able to get to Douma.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The U.S. representative to the inspectors group said there are indications that Russian teams went into Douma already.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the BBC that there was no evidence of chemical weapons in Douma, and denied suggestions that Russia had tampered with the site.

  • Sergei Lavrov:

    There is no proof that on the 7th of April, chemical weapons were used in Douma. And frankly speaking, all the evidence which they quoted was based on the media reports and on the social networks.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But in the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia was covering up the attack. This as Washington apparently prepared to fire another economic salvo at Moscow. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley spoke Sunday of new sanctions on Russian firms the U.S. believes helped Syria's chemical weapons program.

    But The Washington Post reported this afternoon that Mr. Trump wasn't yet ready to impose those sanctions, and had ordered a delay. The airstrikes came weeks after President Trump said he wants the U.S. military out of Syria entirely. French President Emanuel Macron said yesterday that he'd convinced President Trump to maintain a presence in Syria.

    But he walked back those comments today.

  • Emanuel Macron (through translator):

    I didn't indicate any change yesterday. I never said that either the United States or France would stay engaged militarily in the long term in Syria.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said today the president still wants to bring troops home from Syria, but there's no timeline yet for their exit.

    President Trump's actions last week were not specifically approved by Congress. There was no authorization to using military force.

    In the past few minutes, a group of meeting bipartisan senators have unveiled a bill to rewrite current authorizations to use force in Iraq and against ISIS.

    For more of the question of the president's authority, I'm joined by one of that bill's co-sponsors, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He also sits on the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees.

    Thank you, Senator.

  • Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.:

    Thank you, Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, looking over the outline of your bill, it doesn't deal specifically with Syria, but instead with the fight against terrorism and Iraq.

    I want to ask you about the airstrikes against Syria. Do you believe the president had the authority? Were those lawful airstrikes last week?

  • Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.:

    Well, this is a gray area, Lisa.

    And one of the reasons that I have engaged in moving forward with this bipartisan bill that Senators Corker and Kaine are leading is to try and reassert some of Congress' authority and responsibility in the taking of military action.

    It's been now 17 years since the 9/11 strikes that led to the 2001 authorization for the use of military force. And I think those initial authorizations from 2001 and 2002 against Afghanistan and Iraq, against Taliban and al-Qaida, have been so extended and so overused by both the Bush and Obama administrations, that today they are no longer timely and relevant.

    And so it's long past due time for the United States Congress to step up and take our role in crafting an AUMF that fits our current situation. It is not clear to me that President Trump has a plan for a path forward in Syria or that these strikes were appropriately authorized.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And we should mention that we did reach out to the White House to invite them or someone from the White House to appear on this program. They did not supply anyone, but we do hope to have that voice on the show sometime soon.

    Obviously, this is something you have been working on a long time, Senator. I have heard you on the floor, seen you in hearings talking about this a long time.

    And I know that you want Congress to ring in here. But can we talk about the balance of power more globally? Why has Congress, it seems, almost given full power to the president? And, in essence, has the Congress no longer any say essentially and let presidents do what they want with the military?

  • Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.:

    Well, this has been a long time coming, since the 1970s. In military action after military action, president after president has done more and more to skirt around Congress' role, and Congress has not reasserted itself.

    In 2001 and 2002, Congress stepped up and passed authorizations that were specific to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but since then we have not acted. Late in President Obama's administration, I worked to try and persuade White House counsel and the president to work with the then Democratic majority in the Senate to try and replace the 2001 AUMF, but was unsuccessful.

    Senator Kaine has really led these efforts in the Democratic Caucus. And I'm hopeful that we are going to have a robust debate and a vote in the Foreign Relations Committee in the weeks ahead.

    I think we owe no less to the men and women of our armed forces who are currently carrying out missions around the world. And I think we owe it to the American people to be clear about what role Congress is going to take and for us to take some responsibility, which we frankly have allowed to slip from our grasp over the many years since the 2001 beginning of the global war on terror.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Senator, this conversation often centers around the Middle East, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq.

    But you spent a lot of time in Africa. You know that the United States has troops and in fact deploys drones, is involved in military action in dozens of countries around the world. Where is the line?

    Should, for instance, drone strikes be something that Congress approves, briefly?

  • Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.:

    Well, I think this is exactly why we need to have this debate, is because, last year, when four American soldiers tragically were lost in the line of duty in Niger in West Africa, I think there were many Americans and many senators who were unaware that there were Americans engaged in a train and equip mission in West Africa.

    There are members of the Intelligence Committee, the Armed Services Committee who do stay up to date on this. And I do as well on Foreign Relations, but there's many others who don't.

    So, I think it's long past time for us to debate where we are engaging in military conduct and of what kind.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And, Senator, briefly, you have also proposed a bill to limit the president's ability to fire special counsel Mueller on a different topic, the Russia investigation.

  • Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.:


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    What is your concern there?

  • Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.:

    Well, Republican Senator Thom Tillis and Lindsey Graham joined with Democratic Senator Cory Booker and me in introducing a bipartisan bill. We are hopeful it's going to get marked up next week in the Judiciary Committee.

    I think, given the ways that President Trump has been tweeting more and more aggressively challenging Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation, it's no longer a question of if, but when he will take some action to try and restrict or end that investigation, whether by firing Rod Rosenstein or by directly trying to interfere with the investigation.

    Current Justice Department regulations prohibit that, but I am concerned, given very recent developments, that the president may act abruptly.

    Senior Republican senators have said publicly that that would be the end of the Trump presidency. And I'm looking to find a vehicle to allow Republicans and Democrats to work together to make it just a bit harder for the president to act in an abrupt and inappropriate way.

    This bill would allow the special counsel, if fired, to go to a three-judge panel and allow them to determine that, if he was fired inappropriately, he would be allowed to resume the investigation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, thank you.

  • Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.:

    Thank you.

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