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Sen. Kaine: Before Syria Strike, Trump Should Have Included Congress


President Trump took his first major military action last night as commander in chief when U.S. ships in the Mediterranean sea launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at an air base in Syria. The administration says that air base had a stockpile of chemical weapons. Russia is a longtime backer of the Assad regime in Syria. And a Russian government spokesman said this morning that the U.S. strike, quote, "deals a significant blow to relations between Russia and America, which are already in a poor state."

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia joins us now. He's on both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee.

Senator, welcome back to the show.

TIM KAINE: Rachel, good to be with you today.

MARTIN: You have advocated in the past for U.S. military action into Syria. Do you support the Trump administration's choice to carry out these strikes?

KAINE: I'm glad that the United States is finally showing some assertiveness against the brutality of Bashar al-Assad. And Rachel, as you pointed out, I voted to use military action against Syria in 2013 when they used chemical weapons against civilians. But I am very critical of President Trump for taking this action without coming to Congress first.

A president is not supposed to initiate war without a vote of Congress. And a military action - a missile strike against a sovereign nation is an act of war. And so he needs to bring Congress into this, come up and present a plan so that we know what the strategy is and, just as he urged President Obama to do in 2013 when he was a private citizen, this is the kind of thing that shouldn't be happening without consultation and a vote of Congress.

MARTIN: And I want to get back to that. You're talking about the Authorization for Use of...


MARTIN: ...Military Force, which was approved after 9/11. It since...

KAINE: But there - but that was against non-state actors, not to use military force against a sovereign nation. So the authorization from 9/11 does not cover this military action.

MARTIN: You mentioned the Obama administration's decision in 2013 not to go into Syria. This was, of course, after President Obama said there was a redline and then Assad crossed it. There were no repercussions. Did the Obama administration make a crucial mistake there?

KAINE: I don't think the Obama administration made a mistake. The president - President Obama knew that if he was going to wage war against a sovereign nation that that really was not covered by the 9/11 authorization and the Constitution required that he get the approval of Congress. This is what Donald Trump was tweeting out in 2013, the president must go to Congress.

We voted on the Foreign Relations Committee to use military action against Syria. But the matter was never taken up on the floor, so there was never a congressional vote. President Obama did not use military action. Instead, there was a deal that disabled much, though not all, of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

But Rachel, this is a really important point. Why does it matter that a president go to Congress on this? Going to Congress means that there is a debate about the stakes and the strategy that the American public can see before we commit American troops to war. And unless we're under imminent attack - and a president always has the ability to defend the United States without seeking permission. That's what a commander in chief can do. But to wage an offensive war, you've got to come to Congress first.


KAINE: President Obama tried that in 2013, and there was not full congressional support. I think Congress will support President Trump in this instance. I wouldn't be inclined to support him, depending upon the strategy. But you've got to get this in the right order...

MARTIN: But why do you think...

KAINE: ...And not start a war without Congress.

MARTIN: Why do you think Congress would approve this now, when it has refused to try to renew the AUMF, the authorization legislation, for over a decade? It's divided on everything, even issues that Republicans and Democrats thought they could move forward on.

KAINE: Well, can I be kind of blunt with you, Rachel? The reason...


KAINE: ...I think Congress will approve it is you've got two Republican houses. And even the Republicans that were criticizing President Obama for going into Libya, for example - they censured President Obama for going into Libya militarily without a vote of Congress. But they're now saying positive things about President Trump and his actions vis-a-vis Syria.

So just taking them at their statements in the last day, I think that the use of chemical weapons against civilians is such a violation of international norms that Congress would be supportive for appropriate action to deter that from happening in the future. But the president has to bring it to us, has to ask. And we ought to debate it in front of the American public.

MARTIN: One more question about Russia - I mentioned at the top of...


MARTIN: ...Our conversation, Russia is calling the U.S. action in Syria illegal. They've warned that it will make the relationship between the U.S. and Russia worse. What's your take on this? Is putting this kind of military pressure on the Assad regime worth exacerbating tensions with Russia?

KAINE: Well, it's - you know, it is a consequence of it. But Russia has been a backer and apologist for war crimes. Every time we try, in the U.N. Security Council, virtually every time to condemn the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad, Russia is an apologist and uses their veto. The one time, Rachel, they didn't - and this is important - in February of 2014, there was a resolution passed calling for the delivery of humanitarian aid inside Syria, across the borders. We've not even been able to implement that because of Russia. We should be establishing a humanitarian zone in Syria...


KAINE: ...To implement that resolution. And that's what we ought to be doing.

MARTIN: Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat from Virginia - Senator, thank you so much.

KAINE: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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