As the Trump administration ratchets up tensions with Iran, escalating fears that the United States is looking for a possible path to another war in the Middle East, several Democratic presidential contenders are standing firm in their rejection of the White House’s attempts to create a legal rationale for war. They were responding to comments Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made in a May 21 classified briefing for members of Congress that suggested that the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, passed by Congress three days after 9/11 could provide a legal basis for a war with Iran.
In interviews with The Intercept, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as well as spokespeople for Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said it would be illegal for the U.S. government to rely on a 2001 law that authorized military force against perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to go to war with Iran.
Five other prominent Democratic senators, including 2016 vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine of Virginia and Dick Durbin of Illinois, filed a bipartisan amendment on Thursday to the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, for the 2020 fiscal year to prohibit funds from being used for military operations against Iran without congressional approval. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky also joined the Democrats.
Pompeo’s remarks were referenced by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., early Thursday in a House Armed Services Committee markup session and confirmed to The Intercept by Gabbard, who was also present at the May briefing.
Early this morning [2:42AM ET], GOP Rep. @mattgaetz and Dem. Rep. @ElissaSlotkin said that in private presentation, the Trump admin, specifically Sec. Pompeo, argued how, in Ms. Slotkin's words, "the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on #Iran." Chilling. https://t.co/2wjXwo1HTX pic.twitter.com/crqFpwJB88
— Benjamin Armbruster (@benjaminja) June 13, 2019
“We were all in that meeting with Pompeo where those statements were made,” Gabbard said.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., spoke of Pompeo’s remarks without naming him immediately after the classified May briefing, stating, “What I heard in there makes it clear that this administration feels that they do not have to come back and talk to Congress in regards to any action they do in Iran.”
The 2001 AUMF provided the president with authority to wage war against anyone who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the attacks “or harbored such organizations or persons.” During a public April 10 appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo claimed Iran has “very real” connections with al Qaeda. When asked by Paul whether the AUMF applies to Iran, Pompeo declined to say. The State Department did not return a request for comment.
Pompeo’s comments carried new urgency on Thursday, when the secretary of state said that Iran was behind the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, implicating the nation in the second set of attacks on tankers in the region in two months. Late Thursday night, U.S. Central Command released a video it says shows Iran removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers it’s suspected to have attacked on Thursday. The owner of that ship on Friday denied that it was damaged by mines, claiming instead that it was hit by “flying objects.” In a Friday statement, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said “this incident must not be used as a pretext for a war with Iran, a war which would be an unmitigated disaster for the United States, Iran, the region, and the world.”
The Trump administration has already stoked fear of a potential conflict with Iran, withdrawing from the landmark Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in May 2018. More recently, National Security Adviser John Bolton asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran.
Asked for her response to the suggestion that the AUMF might extend to Iran, Warren said Pompeo was “wrong.”
“If the administration doesn’t believe that they can withstand a debate, then they shouldn’t be aiming themselves toward war.”
“If the administration wants to go to war against Iran, then the Constitution requires them to come to Congress to ask for an authorization for the use of military force. This is Constitutional Law 101, that it is Congress, not the president, that declares war,” Warren, a former law professor, said. “We would have to have a debate on the floor of the Senate. And if the administration doesn’t believe that they can withstand a debate, then they shouldn’t be aiming themselves toward war.”
Asked if there was any way that the 2001 AUMF could be construed to extend to Iran, Warren said, “None, nope.”
Gabbard, for her part, said of Pompeo’s suggestion, “I completely disagree, 100% disagree. That’s one of the reasons why I have been so concerned about what this administration is doing. Because in their mind, they could unilaterally start a war with Iran, without congressional authorization, which would be unconstitutional and illegal.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said she wasn’t familiar with Pompeo’s comments. Kristin Lynch, spokesperson for Booker, said his co-sponsorship of a Senate bill that would prohibit the U.S. from spending money on military intervention in Iran without congressional authorization “speaks for itself.” Booker does not believe the 2001 AUMF can be used to authorize war with Iran, Lynch added.
A spokesperson for Gillibrand, Evan Lukaske, said that the senator “has consistently and forcefully pushed for the repeal of the AUMF, an eighteen-year old authorization that has been stretched far past its original intent.” Gillbrand “believes Congress must do its job and exercise oversight of the executive branch, particularly with the current administration, and believes President Trump, and all presidents for that matter, should seek Congressional approval before engaging in proactive military action,” Lukaske said in a statement.
Sanders and Amy Klobuchar have signed onto the bill but did not respond to a request for comment on Pompeo’s remarks. A spokesperson for Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he hadn’t heard about Pompeo’s comments.
The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., now has 25 co-sponsors, including Sanders and 10 others who backed the original bill. Every other Democratic senatorial presidential candidate has signed on to back the bill since mid-May. In response to news of Pompeo’s comments, Udall tweeted Thursday:
The answer is no: the 2001 AUMF does not authorize war with Iran.
After the 9/11 attacks, Congress authorized action against Al Qaeda & the Taliban.
No one thought they were authorizing war with a completely different country, 18 years later. https://t.co/v9kVgAZM0y
— Tom Udall (@SenatorTomUdall) June 13, 2019
Gabbard, who has positioned herself as a pro-peace candidate but generally supports the global war on terror spurred by the 2001 AUMF, has not signed onto the House companion measure to the Udall bill, introduced in April by California Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo. Gabbard said she’d want to read the bill, “but in theory, that’s exactly what we’re going for.” In its first 10 days, the Eshoo bill had only five co-sponsors; it now has 59, including Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, another presidential candidate. The remaining Democratic presidential candidates in the House, Reps. Eric Swalwell of California and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, have not signed on.
During a classified briefing in May, a senior intelligence official told members of Congress that there is no evidence that Al Qaeda has cooperated with Iran on the Gulf attacks, the Daily Beast reported. That information would undermine any attempts to establish grounds for military action against Iran under the current AUMF.
Democratic senators have been discussing possible updates to the AUMF during negotiations to reauthorize the NDAA.
While Gabbard has not signed onto the Eshoo bill, she said that during Wednesday’s Armed Services Committee markup of the NDAA, she included a provision to address the escalating situation with Iran. That measure “specifically said nothing in this bill can be misconstrued to authorize the use of military force against Iran. I also wanted the same language against Venezuela. So covering both of these countries where this administration is hyping up tensions, threatening the use of military force, and so on. That’s something that we’ve got to remain vigilant on,” Gabbard said.
“Obviously our role is to exercise oversight over the administration. As you well know, executive branch has overstepped their authority time and again when it comes to the use of military force. The major check and balance we have is the power of the purse strings, which is where the National Defense Authorization Act comes into play, because it prohibits the use of funding to carry out these things. And it sets policy,” she said.
Gabbard said a “conclusion that found bipartisan support” during the markup was “putting forward a very explicit amendment that says the 2001 AUMF shall not be misconstrued as an authorization to use military force against Iran. Because as even [Rep.] Mac Thornberry said, it wouldn’t. This Iran thing has no correlation to Al Qaeda.” Gabbard said she’d also just reintroduced the No More Presidential Wars Resolution, which “seeks to get at the heart of this problem where Congress is not fulfilling its responsibility, the executive is overstepping its boundaries, and it makes it an impeachable offense for a president to unilaterally start a war without congressional authorization or declaration of war.”
Update: June 15, 2019
This article has been updated with a statement from Sen. Bernie Sanders on the recent oil tanker incidents in the Gulf of Oman, which was released after publication of our story; the date of the classified briefing at which Mike Pompeo spoke; and Rep. Ruben Gallego’s statement immediately following that May 21 briefing.