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Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About The President's Power To Wage War


President Trump got bipartisan praise after ordering strikes in Syria last week. There was, though, this undercurrent of criticism. Our co-host Steve Inskeep looks at some of this wrangling in Washington over how to balance war powers.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: One of the critiques came from Senator Tim Kaine, who approved of U.S. action in Syria but said the president should have sought approval from Congress.


TIM KAINE: A president is not supposed to initiate war without a vote of Congress. And a missile strike against a sovereign nation is an act of war.

INSKEEP: With those words, Senator McCain entered a long-running debate over a president's war powers. The discussion over the Syria strike is a small-scale version of the debate when President Richard Nixon defended the bombing of Cambodia in 1970.


RICHARD NIXON: We take this action not for the purpose of expanding the war into Cambodia but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam and winning the just peace we all desire.

INSKEEP: An explanation that not everyone accepted. So let's Ask Cokie about that long running debate over a president's powers. Many of you had questions about it which we will now put to Cokie Roberts, who answers your questions about how Washington works. Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: Is that debate over Nixon's powers and Nixon's decision a good place to start?

ROBERTS: Sure. Because as a result of the Vietnam War's expansion, Congress wrested back to its end of Pennsylvania Avenue the War Powers Act, which says basically if U.S. forces are in action that the president has to report to Congress and either get authorization or get those forces out within 60 days. And now you have a lot of people saying that's the law that should be invoked.

INSKEEP: People have said that, but the strike is over and done with. And that leads to our first question from the audience via Twitter from J.B. (ph) in central Connecticut. The question is, did Congress know about this attack? If not, thoughts on the fact that Russia knew but Congress did not?

ROBERTS: Some senior members of Congress knew. But, look, Steve, it is not unusual to keep surprise attacks close to the vest. I was in the Capitol the night that the Persian Gulf War started in 1991. And we knew it would start someday but not that day. And it just was getting kind of squirrelly around the Capitol. And I kept making the rounds of the leadership offices. Something was happening but only the leadership knew.

INSKEEP: Now, we should be clear that with the Persian Gulf War, Congress did vote. There was an authorization. Many people want to know if an authorization is necessary for what the United States is doing in Syria. Here's a question from David Morris (ph). Does President Trump need congressional approval to continue, or can Congress's silence be taken as acquiescence?

ROBERTS: Well, I really like the second part of that question because it gets to the congressional desire to have it both ways, Steve, to say that the war powers are their prerogative under the Constitution and at the same time often to try to avoid any responsibility in case things go bad.

INSKEEP: Don't want to take that hard vote either way and be on the record.

ROBERTS: Right. Exactly. On the Persian Gulf War, Congress was finally basically shamed into having a debate by the members who said this is our responsibility. And it was one of the finest congressional debates any one of us has ever witnessed. But the downside of those debates becomes clear when a war goes south, as Hillary Clinton learned after her vote on the Iraq War.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, leading up to the war that started in 2003.

ROBERTS: So when Obama came to Congress and asked for authorization to attack Syria, Congress refused to act.

INSKEEP: OK. That gets us to our next question from the audience.

MEGAN: Hi. This is Megan (ph) from San Diego, Calif. I was curious, is there a limit to how much military action the president can take before he has to involve Congress? And also, is there a role for the judiciary in these types of actions?


ROBERTS: That's a good pairing because, of course, the only way to challenge a limit would be through the courts. A couple of times members of Congress have tried that but the courts have essentially rebuffed them. Lots and lots of military actions have gone on for years without Congress. The Korean War was deemed a police action by Truman. But often, the president prefers to have the backing of Congress. It gives the policy more legitimacy both here at home and abroad.

INSKEEP: That authorization for the use of military force after 9/11 has been used as a grab bag ever since, hasn't it?

ROBERTS: Against every terrorist that exists, even though some of these organizations did not exist at the time of September 11.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks as always.

ROBERTS: OK, good to be with you.

INSKEEP: That's commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. You can Ask Cokie your questions about how Washington works, about how politics work by using the hashtag #AskCokie on Twitter or just by emailing us at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.