President Donald Trump’s Cabinet has long been acting more like a cult than an administration, but its behavior during the recent Iran conflict has plunged to new depths of obsequiousness. If Congress weren’t so passive, we would be on the verge of a constitutional crisis—and the fact that we aren’t may bespeak a deeper crisis still.
A tipping point may have come Wednesday, when senior officials held a closed-door briefing for senators on Trump’s rationale for killing Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force. Many Democrats—and even a few Republicans—emerged from the briefing disgruntled with its vague generalities and its “insulting” tone.
Only 15 of the 97 senators attending were allowed to ask questions before the officials walked out of the chamber. At one point, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told the lawmakers that so much as questioning the president’s authority to launch such attacks would strengthen our enemies. As Republican Sen. Mike Lee, who supported Trump’s actions, put it, Esper was essentially telling them to be “good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public.”
The next day, far from backing away, Trump’s top men doubled down on their claim of total secrecy. Vice President Mike Pence told NBC’s Today show that the senators couldn’t be told some of the “most compelling” intelligence behind the decision to kill Soleimani—not even after the fact—because to do so “could compromise” sources and methods.
Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton declared the War Powers Act to be “unconstitutional”—this in response to Democrats (and at least two Republicans) who are pushing a bill barring Trump from ordering further attacks on Iran without permission from Congress. Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose slavishness toward Trump is prompting even old friends to shake their heads, praised the president’s speech on Wednesday—a meandering bit of mumblecore—as comparable to Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, which anticipated the end of the Cold War.
From the close sidelines, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, perhaps the only White House press secretary to admit publicly that she had lied and then go on to nab a good-paying job in television, told Fox & Friends, when asked about proposals to apply the War Powers Act to limit Trump’s use of force: “I can’t think of anything dumber than allowing Congress to take over our foreign policy. … The last thing we want is to push powers into Congress’ hands and take them away from the president.”
All of these people claim to be honoring Article II of the Constitution, which defines the president’s executive powers. But they didn’t bow so deeply when Barack Obama or Bill Clinton was president—they’re partisan hacks, not patriots—and, in any case, they act as if Article I, which lays out the powers of Congress, didn’t exist.
War powers are a delicate matter; the Constitution gives both Congress and the president some measure of latitude. But Alexander Hamilton, the most pro-executive of the founders, clarified the distinction: The president shall decide “the direction of war when authorized or begun,” but Congress shall have “the sole power of declaring war.”
In other words, Cotton should read the Constitution before he talks about what it forbids, while Sanders should be careful about whom or what she’s calling “dumb.”
It’s clear that Esper, Pence, and the others refused to reveal the intelligence that prompted Trump to kill Soleimani because there is no such intelligence. In the days after the killing, earlier claims of an “imminent” attack by Iranian-backed militias were scrubbed so that “imminent” covered a span of days or weeks in the future. The New York Times reported that, in laying out the options for what action Trump could take prior to the strike, the Pentagon briefers listed killing Soleimani as an extreme idea—to make the other two options look more reasonable. They were reportedly “stunned” that Trump chose that one.
In the context of the Trump team’s words and deeds on a vast span of issues, the nebulous briefing of the Senate and Esper’s finger-wagging warning about the dangers of debating the policies of the president point to something more chronic and serious than the mere dissembling over the assassination of a state official (serious as that is). They are but the latest steps toward authoritarian rule by the White House—and the complicity in these steps by members of Congress and certain media outlets that should sense an institutional stake in resisting it.
Most presidents and their top advisers circle the wagons in reaction to outside criticism. But I can’t think of many who have simply ignored or openly hurled contempt at the legislature’s right to have a say on policy. And I can’t think of any president who has done so since the post-Watergate reforms in the mid-1970s that gave Congress more explicit oversight into military and intelligence operations.
Pence’s concern about revealing sensitive information about sources and methods is particularly disingenuous. If such information really existed, a more detailed briefing could have been presented to the House or Senate intelligence committees. Or, if it were super highly classified, it could have been briefed to the “Gang of Eight”—the chairs and ranking members of those committees as well as the majority and minority members of the House and Senate. According to Loch Johnson, a former staff member of the House Intelligence Committee and since then the author of several books on Congress and the CIA, neither those committees nor the eight have ever been accused of leaking secrets.
The real issue here is that Trump, Pence, Esper, and the other top officials—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was also at the briefing, could be named here as well—want to be in charge of everything, and they don’t want anybody getting in their way. Those who do aren’t merely critics; they’re giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Trump and co. aren’t entirely to blame. Many in Congress—not just the likes of Cotton and Graham—are lying back and taking the abuse. The House and Senate will soon be voting on bills requiring Trump to ask Congress for permission before spending any more money on military operations against Iran. It might pass the House, but probably not the Senate, where, under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, all bills with a vague whiff of anti-Trumpism go to die.
The Republicans aren’t the only ones at fault. Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973—barring a president from sending U.S. troops into combat without permission of the legislative branch—at the height of disenchantment with Vietnam.
Nixon vetoed the bill, but remarkably, the House and Senate both roused the two-thirds majority needed to override his veto. For a brief spell, after Nixon resigned the following year and the Democrats won veto-proof supermajorities in the midterm elections, Congress firmly asserted its authority: It stopped the flow of money for war in Southeast Asia, barred the use of funds to fight Communist rebels in Angola, and passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which placed restraints on the CIA and the National Security Agency.
However, in the decades since, Congress has lapsed into passivity, letting what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the imperial presidency” resume—and, in recent years, accelerate—its course. It sits back, even when a president asks it to learn forward.
In 2013, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed the “red line” by attacking his own people with chemical weapons, President Barack Obama prepared to launch airstrikes against Assad’s regime and military forces, but then decided to ask Congress for authorization. But the Republicans in Congress—who had been urging Obama to take action and who had demanded a say in whatever action he took—refused to bring the issue to a vote. Few Democrats pressured them to bring it on. Congress didn’t authorize action, so Obama didn’t take action—and then the Republicans condemned him for it.
Basically, the majority of members of the 21st-century Congress—in both parties—don’t want the responsibility of going to war, mainly because they don’t want the blame if the war goes badly, as wars often do.
Trump and his crew are taking advantage of this shirking to push their powers further, and they are counting on Congress to let them. Yes, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump, but the Senate will almost certainly acquit him—and might not even hold a trial, by any meaningful sense of the word. And even when the House was holding its impeachment hearings, the Democratic chairmen declined to enforce their subpoenas of witnesses and documents, declined to hold no-shows in contempt of Congress, and declined to have marshals arrest them, which might have made everybody take the proceedings a bit more seriously.
Trump, Pence, Esper, and the others are using Congress as a doormat. They scoff and smirk at the questions they’re asked—at the notion that anyone outside the White House, the Pentagon, and Foggy Bottom has the right to ask questions. And they’ll keep heaving their contempt on Congress, on whatever articles of the Constitution they don’t much like, on any Americans who didn’t vote for their boss, until a majority of legislators take their own jobs seriously—or the voters replace them with candidates who say that they will.