Senator Chris Murphy thinks “[Donald] Trump’s foreign policy is totally incoherent,” and he’s taking steps to prevent it from worsening the crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Murphy, along with fellow Senators Brian Schatz and Corey Booker, have announced a bill that would stop Trump from launching a military strike against North Korea without Congressional consent.
The legislation will prohibit the use of federal funds for military action against the isolationist nation without direct provocation or authorization from Congress.
Murphy, a longtime proponent of a more progressive foreign policy approach that focuses on nonmilitary diplomacy and coalition building, told Heavy, “This is a really important moment where Congress has abdicated much of its responsibility on foreign policy to the president.”
“My worry is that the president feels he has a blank check to take action in North Korea without the consent of Congress,” he continued. “I don’t believe Congress gives him that ability.”
The senator fears that Trump’s advisors are incorrectly counseling him that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will give him a legal basis for launching a pre-emptive strike without first consulting Congress. Under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the president must inform Congress of the committal of military troops within 48 hours of deployment, and limits that deployment to 60 days without Congressional approval with a further 30 days allotted for withdrawal.
The resolution was passed at the tail-end of the Vietnam War—for which neither Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon sought Congressional approval—in an attempt to ensure future Congressional oversight for the use of armed forces. Since its passage, the constitutionality of limiting the president’s power over the military has been hotly debated.
In 2011, President Obama deployed troops to Libya to oust leader Muammar Qaddafi, and notified Congress within the required time period. But, at the end of 60 days, he still had not sought Congressional approval, and eventually released a statement claiming that he did not need to because he had the “constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations … as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive.”
In his final year at the White House, Obama called the aftermath of the campaign his “worst mistake” as president.
Murphy pointed to the current administration’s bombing of Syria as another example of a president taking unauthorized military action. “[There was] no national emergency, no imminent threat, but because lots of people in Congress can support what he did, there wasn’t a lot of complaints.”
But the War Powers Resolution is only four decades old, and the pattern of presidents playing fast and loose with their war powers has long predated it, with rather confusing results.
During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order deploying the military domestically to round up Japanese-Americans and place them in internment camps. The decision was challenged as unconstitutional, but later held up by the Supreme Court.
In 1952, Harry Truman also ordered the seizure of a steel mill that had been shut down by a labor strike at the height of the Korean War; that action was later struck down the Supreme Court. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in Maryland so he could try Confederate sympathizers in military court. A federal court struck the order down and it was referred to Congress, which finally authorized the action two years later.
“[Presidents] have long attempted to expand their war making powers, and often Congress doesn’t provide a lot of pushback,” Murphy says, noting that Congressional silence does not equate to the president having Constitutional authority to unilaterally commit troops to foreign conflict.
Aside from his critiques of the current state of U.S. foreign policy—in a Medium article earlier this month, he referred to the “imperial presidency” and rebuked his peers in Congress for “refus[ing] to do the work necessary to be true experts on critical issues to U.S. national security”—Murphy is also not a fan of Trump’s unique brand of diplomacy.
“[His] foreign policy is totally incoherent,” he said frankly. “He’s regularly undercutting his diplomats, he’s one day expressing support for NATO and the next day trying to undermine it. He continues to deny that Russia interfered in U.S. elections, but sometimes he says they did. His policy in the Middle East is a total mess; there is no way to make America safe by having a policy in the Middle East that roots ourselves so firmly with the Saudis. Add to that, a campaign of pretty open, enthusiastic Islamophobia, and you’ve got the world pretty panicked,” Murphy added.
The senator fears that the Trump administration perceives that “the set of options [for dealing with North Korea] is dramatically narrowing” in recent months. Diplomatic channels are failing—or being undermined by Trump, according to Murphy—and he therefore hopes “to make it completely clear” that any military action should be first considered by Congress.
When asked what kind of support he expects to muster for his bill, Murphy admits that he’s not likely to find a co-sponsor in the Republican Party. And though he has yet to speak to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), he is worried about getting the legislation on the floor.
But, once it’s up for a vote, he says, “It seems to me a no-brainer. All we’re saying is the president can’t launch a military attack against North Korea without permission.” For Murphy, it’s a request for a conversation.
If it does pass, Trump is highly likely to veto—Nixon vetoed the War Powers Resolution in 1973—and a two-thirds majority in the Senate would be required to overturn it. Despite Trump’s growing unpopularity within his own party, Congress remains deeply divided along partisan lines.
Unlike in 1973, the nation is also not on the tail end of a decade-long, unauthorized, and bloody foreign war, which could mean that Republicans have less incentive to so directly defy their president. Overturning a veto might prove to be Murphy’s biggest roadblock in his quest to reign in President Trump.
But the senator is still hopeful. “I think the law is clear,” he said. “I’ve always believed that the president has to come to Congress before taking military action.”