WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Capitol Hill fear members of President Trump’s inner circle are pushing the commander-in-chief into starting a war with Iran — and they’re taking steps to stop it.
So far the White House has responded cryptically to news that Iran shot down a U.S. drone over the Strait of Hormuz Thursday morning, with President Trump tweeting, “Iran made a very big mistake!” The Pentagon called it “an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace.”
But on Wednesday the House of Representatives tried to take away his ability to order a strike on Iran by voting to repeal the two-decades-old Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the 9/11-era law authorizing the war against terror that former President George W. Bush used to invade Iraq and that his successors have used to carry out military missions in the Middle East.
The House vote marked the first time either chamber of Congress has voted to revoke the war powers granted to the executive branch; the AUMF is also one of the legal underpinnings the administration is using to justify any potential military conflict with Iran.
But it comes as many prominent Republicans are telling the president he can launch airstrikes and other military operations without having to come to Congress.
“We are talking about a military response on the table that would cripple their ability to do this by attacking the naval force that has been the military force against our vessels,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday. “And we’re talking about destroying their ability to refine oil.”
“I’m talking about blowing it up,” added Graham, who went golfing with Trump last weekend. And earlier this week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in interviews with CBS and Politico that the June 13 attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman warranted a retaliatory strike. That was before the Iranians shot down a U.S. drone.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have long chafed at the expansive use of the AUMF by the White House to authorize U.S. military actions abroad without coming to Congress.
“I think that’s outrageous,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told VICE News. “Look we have got to end the endless wars, and we cannot not keep fighting wars based on a very dated AUMF.”
Sanders’ concern is only amplified by the presence of hawkish figures in Trump’s administration.
“I think, led by [National Security Advisor] John Bolton, there are people in this administration who have hardly ever found a cause that they didn’t want to start a war over,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the 23 lawmakers who opposed the invasion of Iraq, told VICE News at the Capitol.
That kind of skepticism is pervasive on the Democratic side of Capitol, which is why many in the party are moving to curtail any potential U.S. first strike. In the House, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is working to attach language to a must-pass defense authorization bill that explicitly says the current AUMF doesn’t apply to Iran while also threatening to cut off funding to any military activity in Iran that isn’t approved by Congress.
“I don’t think Trump wants to go to war,” Khanna told VICE News in between votes just off the House floor. “I think Bolton and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo are trying to create the conditions that will force his hand. He’s using them to appease the right-wing base and thinks he can call the shots, and the danger is that there’s some risk of miscalculation that escalates.”
On Thursday the Senate is scheduled to vote on legislation to cut off the Trump administration’s plan to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a very important vote, because the Saudi situation is unacceptable and this president’s looking the other way,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told VICE News at the Capitol.
The vote is seen as crucial for opponents of the administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East, especially in the wake of the U.S. intelligence community finding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directed the brutal killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Still, its supporters – including GOP Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of Indiana — fear their efforts to curtail Trump’s provocative foreign policy decisions aren’t working the way they’ve been intended to.
“The problem is that no matter how many votes we take, the administration continues to double down on its unconditional support for the Saudi regime,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “Everybody tells us that the Gulf states are concerned about the actions Congress are taking, [but] the Trump administration seems to be getting closer and closer to the Saudis.”
Many Republicans will once again oppose efforts to rein in the Saudi regime because they say they’re a vital American ally in the region and key to keeping Iran in check. And the hard-liners aren’t just in the Senate; they’re in the White House, advising Trump on a daily basis. Hence the fear of a quick escalation of tension in the volatile region.
“I’m more worried that there are people who think like Sen. Cotton talking to the president every day in the Oval Office,” Murphy said. “There’s just, obviously, a potential for a gross and catastrophic miscalculation.”
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump attends a ceremony where he presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist Arthur Laffer on June 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)