WEST HARTFORD, CT — U.S. Rep. John B. Larson’s constituents struggled Sunday with the idea that Republican President Donald Trump has the authority to launch airstrikes in war-torn Syria without permission from Congress.
Larson and his colleagues headed home for a two-week break after Congress adjourned Friday, about 24 hours after the United States launched what the Trump administration is calling a retaliatory missile strike against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The U.S. and other western nations reportedly believe Assad’s aircraft targeted the rebel-controlled northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin gas, killing dozens of civilians, including children.
The Syrian airstrike was reportedly launched from the Shayrat airfield, which the U.S. Navy then bombarded with 59 Tomahawk missiles at 3:40 p.m. EST on Thursday.
Pressed by several of his constituents Sunday at the University of Hartford regarding the president’s leeway under the War Powers Act, Larson maintained that the president has the authority to engage the military as necessary under the law.
“All presidents have the ability, when they feel our nation’s best interests are being threatened, to respond,” Larson told the 50 constituents Sunday, adding that he thought the Trump administration’s response was “proportional and appropriate.”
He said the president — any president — has the authority to launch pre-emptive strikes if the security of the nation is at risk.
“Not to respond to the horrific attack by Assad would have been a mistake,” Larson said.
However, Larson also believes it’s Congress’ turn to act now.
“Any military action is tantamount to an act of war, and Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution clearly defines that only Congress has the authority to declare war,” Larson wrote April 7 in a letter to Trump.
He urged congressional leaders to reconvene this week, while they’re supposed to be on break, to debate the issue of using military force in Syria.
One woman said she’s skeptical of anything Trump does.
“He has not wanted any of the Syrian people to come in, and now he’s acting like he cares about the Syrian people,” Leslie Hammond of Hartford told Larson. “I’m very, very suspicious about all this.”
Use of sarin gas, which is considered a weapon of mass destruction, is banned under international law. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons several times in 2013, according to the United Nations.
In September 2013, the Obama administration asked Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Syria government in response to their use of sarin gas in their ongoing civil war. But the Republican-controlled Congress never took up the resolution. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry then negotiated to have Syria turned over “every single bit” of its chemical weapons stockpiles, in order to avert U.S. airstrikes.
According wikipedia, “Hours after Kerry’s statement, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Russia had suggested to Syria that it should relinquish its chemical weapons. The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, immediately welcomed the proposal.”
The incident in Khan Sheikhoun last week is reportedly the first use of chemical weapons in Syria since that agreement.
On Thursday, the U.S. military launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airfield. Damage assessments from the missile attack have varied in news reports. The U.S. claims it destroyed 20 Syrian aircraft and other equipment at the airfield.
However, Reuters and other news organizations have reported that Syrian warplanes took off from the same airfield less than 24 hours after the missile attack. The runways, according to some reports, were undamaged.
Larson said that since the missiles only targeted the airfield where the planes took off with the chemical weapons, he thought it was a “measured” response.
Christina Jackson of West Hartford wanted to know why they didn’t take out the runways?
“Yes, they were able to repair the airfield quick enough,” Larson said. And, by doing it so quickly, Assad essentially “was saying to the United States ‘you didn’t do nothing to us’.” He also said that the more important message Assad was sending was to the rebels and other factions fighting within Syria — that he was still capable of launching airstrikes despite the U.S. action.
Larson said the airfield was repaired quickly, in part, because they want to be able to “provoke.” At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin has to decide whether he wants to continue to support a guy “who would kill his own people,” Larson said.
Jackson told Larson she would have at least “bombed” the runways and “cratered them so they couldn’t take off.”
She later said Larson didn’t fully answer her question about the motivation behind the U.S. attack.
Jackson also wanted to know why the United States informed Russia about the attack before it was launched. Assad, according to Larson, doesn’t have the ability to harm to the United States. But Russia, which is supporting Syrian forces in the six-year civil war, can harm the U.S.
“They have these backline communications as part of the treaty,” Larson said. “[The U.S.] would inform Russia before their strike of what they were going to do.”
Larson said he doesn’t believe communications with Russia were part of any conspiracy.
“Congress has really abrogated that responsibility to the executive branch since Vietnam,” Larson said. “Why? Because people don’t want to take positions because when you do citizens get angry with you. They’re on one side or the other and people are more concerned about staying in power and holding their offices than they are about doing the right thing.”