Presidential powers, missile strikes and sanctions: Evolution of thinking in the world of Donald Trump

Part 1

In 1787, as we all know, the framers of the U.S. Constitution declared that “The President shall be Commander-in-Chief” of our military, and “Congress shall have (sole) power to declare war.”  Unfortunately, the framers failed to anticipate future U.S. missile strikes to punish a foreign country or rogue regime, such as Assad’s Syria.

In 1973, Congress passed a clarifying, compromise “War Powers Act” or “Resolution” limiting the power of the president to deploy military forces beyond 30 days without consent of Congress. But how about one-off missile strikes? For the answer we turn to the “stable mind” of Donald J. Trump himself.

In 2012, when President Barack Obama said he was considering a strike on Syria to punish and  to dissuade Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people, Donald Trump immediately spoke up to assert that to do so would exceed presidential powers. Trump made his position perfectly clear. Obama, however, believed that a president had the power to call for a one-time strike provided he reported back to Congress thereafter.

In 2013, as he considered running for office in 2016, Trump changed his mind about limited presidential power to call for acts of war, but he advised Obama that the United States should nevertheless “stay the hell out of Syria.” When Obama pushed back, Trump shifted the argument, and instead criticized Obama for “tipping his hand” on U.S. intentions.  Trump tweeted:  “Why do we keep broadcasting  when we are going to attack Syria? Why can’t we just be quiet and, if we attack at all, catch them by surprise ?” 

In 2017, after Trump took office as 45th president of the U.S., he announced, well in advance, that, with or without congressional authority, he intended to call for a missile strike against Syria.  He “tipped his hand.” Then in 2018, President Trump decided to do it again, giving Syria and Russia warning of another missile strike, again well in advance.  When Russia objected, Trump tweeted: “Get ready, Russia, because the missiles will be coming, nice and new and smart.”

Why the advance saber rattling and the eagerness to attack Syria militarily, which Trump had previously condemned? Why the missile strikes? Skeptics ask: Has Trump been trying to “wag the dog”? That is, is it all a convenient distraction from domestic woes, such as complaints  by Stormy Daniels and 18 other women, payment of “hush money,” allegations of misadventures in a Moscow hotel, financial dealings with Russians banks and oligarchs, tax evasion, money laundering, bank fraud, question of mental stability, intervention in the 2016 elections, malpractice by his personal lawyer and top team members, attempts to undermine the legal Mueller investigation of the “Russia connection,” the firing of FBI Director James Comey and other officials, as well as apparent obstruction of justice and actions possibly bordering on treason?

“Wag the dog” or not, and listen to his advisers or not, in 2018 President Trump faced a genuine national and international crisis, for once not of his own making.  The critical question, of course, was whether the Assad regime, backed by Russia, had in fact used chemical weapons against their own Syrian people. Should the U.S. take action? Even before the UN had a chance fully to investigate the facts, the governments of both Syria and Russia denied the allegations. Vladimir Putin adopted Trump’s preferred term to describe the allegation: “Fake News.” Trump went ahead with the missile strike. The rest was history.


Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.