President Trump's warning that North Korea could "face fire and fury like the world has never seen" has reignited a debate about whether the commander in chief needs congressional approval before launching a preemptive military strike.
So far, congressional leaders from both parties have been silent on the issue. They’re reluctant to tie Trump’s hands as Pyongyang threatens to bomb a specific target: the U.S. territory of Guam. They also recognize how unpopular and divisive a vote on a war resolution would be for lawmakers facing reelection next year.
But many rank-and-file Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, say Trump needs to come to Congress first and formally request an authorization for use of military force or AUMF, especially as he appears to threaten a nuclear attack.
“We know that the president is suggesting potential use of military force. ... This is a conversation that needs to take place,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said Wednesday on CNN.
“The authority of Congress should be asserted, particularly in the case of this president where he seems to be somewhat erratic when it comes to what he suggests is American foreign policy.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who serves on the Armed Services Committee and comes from a state that could be a top North Korean target, said “preemptive war” on the Korean peninsula “would require the authorization of Congress.”
"Article I of the U.S. Constitution is very clear about that," Sullivan, an Afghanistan war veteran, said during an appearance Tuesday on Fox News.
Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) said he has not fully evaluated whether it would be legal or constitutional for Trump to strike first against North Korea.
“But I think it would be to the president’s advantage” to consult with Congress, Webster told The Hill. “It lets North Korea know we mean business.”
Of course, if nuclear-armed North Korea were to strike Guam, Alaska, Hawaii or any other U.S. targets, Trump would have the full power to respond on his own, lawmakers added.
Still, some congressional Republicans argued that Trump would be free to act first without any congressional approval, so long as the military action against North Korea is not a long, drawn-out conflict like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The War Powers Act of 1973 gives the president the power to wage war for 60 days before an authorization from Congress is needed.
“No,” replied one House Republican when asked if a new AUMF was required.
“In the short run, the president has the executive authority to take action,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a close Trump ally, told The Hill. “But in the medium- and long-term, the Congress absolutely needs to engage in world affairs and not abdicate from its duty like we have for the past decades.
“For decades, we have kicked the can on our foreign policy leadership and that neglect is precisely what has precipitated these current events,” he added.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress granted President George W. Bush authorization to wage a global war on terror; a year later, Congress passed another resolution authorizing military action in Iraq.
But Congress has largely shirked its war responsibilities in the years since. In 2013, congressional Republicans ignored a request by then-President Obama to authorize a military strike in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad attacked his people with chemical weapons.
Earlier this year, Trump launched strikes against Syria, arguing that he had the ability to do so under the 2001 military authorization. Congressional had little say in the matter.
In late June, the powerful Appropriations Committee unexpectedly passed an amendment by liberal Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to repeal the 2001 authorization and require Congress to debate and vote on further military action. But GOP leaders stripped that provision from the final bill, preserving the status quo.
Both Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced companion bills this year that would bar Trump from launching a preemptive nuclear attack before Congress approves a declaration of war. But those bills have gone nowhere in the GOP-controlled House and Senate.
After a report Tuesday that North Korea had constructed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could fit inside its missiles, Trump warned that any further threats from the Asian nation would be met with “fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Hours later, North Korea’s state-run news agency responded with a blustery statement of its own: Pyongyang could launch strategic ballistic missiles against Guam, specifically a U.S. Air Force base where thousands of troops are stationed.
The back-and-forth continued on Wednesday, with Defense Secretary James Mattis calling on North Korea to halt any actions “that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people."
Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka said the U.S. is not just a superpower but a “hyper-power.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for a time out, urging the Trump administration to dial back its fiery rhetoric. While acknowledging that U.S. diplomatic options are limited, Kildee and others said Trump needs to do more to pressure China to stop trade with North Korea.
Both Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have not commented on the North Korea situation. In a statement, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) steered clear of the AUMF issue but ripped Trump’s threats as “recklessly belligerent.”
“His saber-rattling and provocative, impulsive rhetoric erode our credibility and weaken our ability to reach a peaceful resolution to this crisis, and must immediately end,” she said.
During an appearance on CNN, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, dismissed Trump’s threats as “silly words” that he wouldn’t have used. But he also said the “hysteria” about those threats was overblown.
A more thoughtful address from Trump on his North Korean strategy would be helpful, Kinzinger said.
“I do think President Trump could do everybody a favor by giving that address laying out where they are right now, our plans for the future, making people feel safe but also understanding we have to pay attention to this,” the congressman said.