Is President Trump’s strike on Syria constitutional?

Washington Post reporter Dan Lamothe explains why President Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian military airfield on April 6 and what this means for the fight against the Islamic State. (Sarah Parnass,Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

This post, originally published in April 2017, has been updated with the latest information. 

To hear some members of Congress tell it, President Trump’s strike on the Syrian government’s chemical weapons program early Saturday was illegal. Congress, after all, is the only branch of government that can authorize war.

But foreign policy experts The Fix spoke to after Trump’s first Syria strike a year ago say Trump is probably okay launching one or even a couple of strikes on his own without Congress’s permission. That’s because the War Powers Act allows the president to take some military action on his own, as long as it’s more of a one-off thing and not long-term.

If Trump wants to go any further — well, then our experts say he’s going to need Congress’s blessing. As Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) points out above, Trump himself thought the same thing when Obama was considering military strikes against Syria in 2013.

The line on when a president needs Congress’s approval is fuzzy, but it’s more of a know-it-when-you-see-it-situation, said Phillip Carter, a senior fellow with the national security-focused Center for a New American Security think tank, speaking to The Fix shortly after Trump launched the first missile strike on Syria in April 2017.

A president’s unilateral power, he said, is “something short of war. It’s the use of force by the president to achieve an immediate end,” he said. President Ronald Reagan didn’t seek congressional approval when he bombed Libya in retaliation for a bombing of a Berlin club in 1986. In the ’90s, both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton dropped bombs in Iraq on their own, in between the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War.

Jens David Ohlin, an associate dean at Cornell Law School, agreed that Trump is in the clear for now: “He would need congressional authorization if he wants this to be a sustained attack, but if this is just a one-off attack, then I don’t think he really needs congressional authorization.”

But even if Trump had not ordered the United States’ first direct military strike on the Syria’s government since that country’s civil war began six years ago, he would probably need to go to Congress to get authorization just to keep up the status quo from the previous administration.

President Barack Obama never launched Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian government airfield, but even his drone strikes in the region were legally flimsy.