Trump’s Ultimate Defender Weary Of War

Photo by: Gage Skidmore

Matt Gaetz’s campaign website features press quotes describing the Florida Republican as “Trump’s best buddy,” “Trump’s ultimate defender,” and “the Trumpiest congressman in Trump’s Washington.” Gaetz clearly was not driven by hatred of the president when he voted for last week’s House resolution against an unauthorized war with Iran.

Although it may be hard to believe in these hyperpartisan times, Gaetz, a self-described “constitutional conservative,” was defending a principle he thinks is more important than loyalty to one man or one party. He was standing up for the legislative branch’s long-neglected but crucial role in deciding when the country should go to war.

The nonbinding House resolution, a response to the Trump-ordered drone attack that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani as he was leaving the Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3, “simply seeks to reclaim some of the Article 1 authority that we’ve ceded to the Executive over the past 20 years,” Gaetz’s office explained. “It states that only Congress has the authority to declare war, and that Congress has not authorized military force against Iran.”

As Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., a former Republican who also supported the resolution, pointed out, “Matt Gaetz hasn’t changed his position on war powers. He had the same position when President Obama was in office. It’s the constitutionally conservative position.”

Gaetz’s consistency did not win him any points in the White House. A senior White House official told The Washington Post the Trump administration would punish Gaetz’s “super uncool” position by cutting off all contact with him.

Gaetz praised the president’s “mindful restraint” after Iran responded to Soleimani’s death with a nonlethal barrage of missiles aimed at Iraqi military bases where U.S. troops are stationed. But the strike against Soleimani, coupled with the administration’s shifting rationales for it, understandably raised concerns that the United States was about to become embroiled in yet another foreign conflict with no clear goal or end.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien initially said the operation was covered by the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq. Since Soleimani had helped Iran-backed militias kill U.S. troops in Iraq, that suggestion was superficially plausible.

But the 2002 AUMF, which authorized the president to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” and “enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq,” was aimed at a regime that no longer exists. And now the Trump administration was using that seemingly obsolete authorization to kill a senior official of a different country, which the United States surely would view as an act of war if the positions were reversed.

“They have justified the killing of an Iranian general as being something that Congress gave them permission to do in 2002,” observed Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., another Trump ally who shares Gaetz’s concern about the erosion of congressional war powers. “That is absurd.”

The Trump administration also said killing Soleimani was necessary to prevent an “imminent” attack against the United States that he was planning, which pretty much everyone agrees would fit within the president’s war powers. But the administration provided no evidence, even in private briefings of legislators, that such an attack was in the offing, let alone that killing Soleimani prevented it. And Trump reportedly approved the assassination last June, making the claim of an imminent threat hard to swallow.

Last Friday, Trump suggested there was specific intelligence indicating that Soleimani planned to attack four U.S. embassies, a claim contradicted by Defense Secretary Mark Esper. But nevermind. “It doesn’t really matter,” Trump tweeted on Monday, “because of his horrible past!”

Despite lingering questions about the legality and wisdom of killing Soleimani, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warns that legislators who raise those issues are “empowering the enemy.” Yet members of Congress have a constitutional duty to ask those questions, and failing to do so empowers one person to launch wars that affect all of us.

Jacob Sullum
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.