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Rep. Smith Supports War Powers Resolution To Limit Trump On Iran

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On Capitol Hill, the House is expected to vote today on a resolution to curb President Trump's war powers. Administration officials briefed lawmakers yesterday on the strike that killed Iran's top military leader Qassem Soleimani. Congressman Adam Smith is a Democrat from Washington state. He is chair of the House Armed Services Committee. And he joins me this morning to talk through all of this. Congressman, thanks for taking the time for us.

ADAM SMITH: Well, thanks for giving me the chance. I appreciate it.

GREENE: So what would this resolution accomplish?

SMITH: The resolution would basically require the president to get congressional approval before taking military action against Iran. It would restrict his ability to, you know, commit acts of war against Iran and basically reassert the congressional role in going to war.

GREENE: And you're going to support it?

SMITH: Yes, I am.

GREENE: And, I mean, is there any chance of it surviving in the Senate?

SMITH: Well, I will say that there has been bipartisan support for the basic principle that the executive has overreached. And not just this president, but many presidents have pretty much ignored the congressional role in deciding when to commit our troops to military action. There is bipartisan support for this. We passed a similar amendment to this that was attached to the National Defense Authorizing Act (ph) last year, and it had bipartisan support. Now, it did not survive the Senate. Senate Republicans opposed it; the White House opposed it.

But it's not just a Democratic idea that the legislative branch ought to have some say in when we go to war. I've talked to generals, actually, who feel strongly about this, that the country needs to support the military action of our military.

GREENE: Well, I'm glad you brought up the timeline because it's not just President Trump. I mean, presidents before him ordered hundreds of drone strikes in the Middle East and Pakistan and Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. I mean, what - why now? Why wasn't this done sooner?

SMITH: It's been introduced throughout all that period, and people have supported it. There have been efforts to rewrite the 2001 AUMF. There have been efforts to repeal the 2001 AUMF, the 2002 AUMF. There have been a number of efforts on this front, but they've run into some of the same challenges that this one is going to run into. So this is something we've been talking about and pushing for a long time.

GREENE: I just want to ask - I mean, there are members of Congress who say they fully support what the president decided to do with this drone strike. The administration has made the argument that there was an imminent threat that Soleimani was plotting attacks against the United States. If this went into place, would it constrain the president from being able to act quickly to prevent what the president sees as an imminent threat?

SMITH: Well, no, and that's the interesting thing. Even the resolution that I mentioned - or the piece of legislation that was attached to the defense bill, it always has a clear exception for the president's right to act in self-defense. And this is a - both a necessary element and a flaw, without question, because it says, you know, if an attack is imminent, if the president feels that his action is necessary to protect American lives, then he has the right to act, regardless of what's in this resolution or any other resolution.

Now, obviously, you can see the flaw in that. What is an imminent threat? What is self-defense?

GREENE: Well, that brings up the very situation we're in now. You got a briefing from the White House yesterday, I presume, making the case that Soleimani did pose an imminent threat and that this was an act of self-defense. Did you learn about the rationale that President Trump had to carry this out?

SMITH: Well, the big problem there is what we did. And I personally had had conversations with General Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper about this, and I knew where they were coming from. Their argument is that they had intel that Iran, through Soleimani, was planning attacks. But when you asked them, OK, well, what attacks, what were the targets, they didn't know.

What was the timeline? They feel that the timeline was days, maybe weeks, but there was no message that they received or intel that they got that said, OK, Iran has approved this attack on these sites in this timeline. It was just a lot of chatter about targets that they were looking at and the desire, on Iran's part, to hit those targets sometime in the near future. So...

GREENE: But couldn't the near future be immediately? I mean, could chatter be enough to...

SMITH: Could be.

GREENE: ...Demand an act of self-defense?

SMITH: Could be. I mean, but that - but we were not specifically told - and there's reasons for this. They want to protect their sources and methods, you know, not let people know what we know or how we know it, more importantly. But we would not specifically said, OK, here's what we heard, here's why we thought it was imminent. So I think there still is a legitimate question as to how imminent this attack was.

GREENE: Chairman Smith, thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

SMITH: Thanks for the chance.

GREENE: Democrat Adam Smith chairs the House Armed Services Committee I want to bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who was listening in. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hello.

GREENE: Interesting here - what struck me in that conversation was that this is not about a single drone strike; I mean, this has been a fundamental disagreement between two branches of power going back through George W. Bush's days, maybe beyond, right?

LIASSON: Yeah, maybe beyond. Congress - many people think Congress has underreached. You know, you hear a lot about congressional overreach. In this case, they haven't passed a new AUMF, Authorization to Use Military Force, since 2002, and that's been a really long time. And certainly, when you have divided government, it's usually the opposition party in Congress that wants to put some checks on the president, but the Constitution does give the sole power to declare war to Congress.

And so that's why you had not only Democrats in the House pushing back against the president with this resolution, but you had some Republican senators who felt that the administration has not given them, in these briefings, a clear enough moral, legal, constitutional rationale for why they took the strike, and they are willing - at least two of them, Mike Lee and Rand Paul - to join Democrats and vote for some kind of a restraint on the president going forward.

GREENE: Two senators. Could there be more? I mean, do you think Republicans are ready to do something like this - if they believe in it fundamentally, but if it could come across to the American public as a criticism of this specific president?

LIASSON: Yeah, that's a good question. I don't know the answer to that. I do know that in the past, even though Republicans in Congress have been in lockstep with the president on almost everything, foreign policy is the one thing where they have broken with him on various resolutions, whether it's about NATO or Saudi Arabia or Russian sanctions.

And even if the Senate did join the House and pass this resolution, it doesn't have the force of law. The president doesn't have to sign it. And the president has taken a very, very expansive view of his constitutional authority. He has said, famously, that Article 2 allows him to do whatever he wants.

GREENE: Congressman Smith - very measured. I mean, even saying he's had conversations with the military, with the White House. Are other Democrats ready to be as measured in the criticism of this president's foreign policy in this moment?

LIASSON: Well, sure, because as you said, this is a constitutional argument. This is going to affect the next Democratic president. And this is about how popular will is represented in government. This is a long-standing constitutional debate.

GREENE: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much, as always.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.