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Sen. Tim Kaine Questions Legality Of U.S.-Led Airstrikes


Top Trump administration officials say the U.S. is, quote, unquote, "locked and loaded and ready to strike Syria again if needed," but there are other officials who question the legality of these military strikes. One lawmaker raising that issue is United States Senator Tim Kaine. He is a Democrat from Virginia. He is a member of both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. He has been a vocal critic of President Trump's decision to act without consulting Congress, and he is with us on the line now. Senator Kaine, thanks so much for joining us, welcome.

TIM KAINE: You bet, Michel. Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: You were on Twitter last night, and I quote, "Trump's decision to launch airstrikes against Syria without Congress's approval is illegal. We need to stop giving presidents a blank check to wage war. Today it is Syria, but what's going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next?" So, a couple of questions here. First of all, if President Trump had come to Congress first, as incidentally he said President Obama should have done in 2013, would you have supported these strikes?

KAINE: Likely, Michel, I would have. There has to be a consequence for using chemical weapons against civilians, and that's why when President Obama came to Congress in 2014 as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I did vote for military action. But what President Obama did was he followed the constitutional requirement that you can't start a war without a Congress, and by coming to Congress, he laid out a strategy. Military action isn't an end. It's a means to an end. You have to understand the strategy to know whether it makes sense. So my criticism of President Trump is he's ignoring the legal requirement, and he hasn't given us a strategy for our activities in Syria which makes military action potentially very reckless.

MARTIN: There are those in both political parties though who believe that President Obama's decision not to take more aggressive action back in 2013 is what laid the groundwork for these subsequent actions by Syria in hindsight, and I know that's 2013. Do you think that that might be true?

KAINE: Well, I think that there's a lot of problems with what happened in Syria. I think what we should've done in February of 2014 was to act pursuant to a U.N. Security Council resolution that passed to establish a humanitarian zone in northern Syria and tell people if they wanted to come there to flee Assad, ISIS, cholera, poverty, hunger, we would protect them. I think we should have done that, and the U.S. and the world will look back and feel that that was a real just horrible tragedy that we didn't. But the Constitution doesn't allow shortcuts.

The reason that you're not supposed to start a war without Congress was a moral judgment by the framers that if we're going to order our troops to risk their lives and potentially kill others, it should be based on a determination that the mission was in the national interest, and the way you get that determination is by having a debate and a vote.

And as you pointed out, Donald Trump as a citizen in 2014 took to the airwaves to rail against President Obama and say you can't do this without a vote of Congress. I'm very worried that he now feels like he can just act on his own. And as I expressed in my own social media last night, If he thinks he can do this bombing without Congress, what's to stop him if he decides he wants to bomb other countries?

MARTIN: I'm asking for an opinion now. I'm asking you to assess the views of your colleagues, which may or may not be comfortable for you. But we've heard from a few of your colleagues but not that many, frankly. If they are really disturbed at not being consulted, don't you think we would have heard from more of them? Really it begs the question is has this become a partisan question?

KAINE: Michel, actually, you know, I don't think it's that partisan. Sadly, it's kind of nonpartisan. Congress likes to duck war votes. Congress wants to advocate the responsibility. This was a power that was handed to Congress in Article 1, probably the most jealously guarded power that Congress should have, is not letting a president start a war without them. But what congresses of both parties - and by both parties I mean first Whigs and Federalists. And now Democrats and Republicans have kind of figured out is, a war vote is tough. It's a very, very tough vote under any circumstance. And so if you can duck it - and if the president does it and it doesn't work out, you can criticize him. If it works out well, you can say, that's great.

But I represent a state that's very connected to the military. I have a child in the military. I've really looked at why we do it the way we - why we're supposed to do it this way. And it's because we're not supposed to commit our troops and force them to risk their lives, their health, the health of their colleagues unless Congress is courageous enough to say this mission's in the national interest, and there just shouldn't be any shortcuts. And President Trump seemed to understand that just three or four years ago. But his decision to now act without even coming to Congress, I think really, really puts us on a slippery slope that we're going to regret.

MARTIN: That is United States Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia. Senator, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KAINE: Absolutely, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.