Sen. Reed: Trump must explain legal authority for Syria strikes

Whitehouse, Langevin back attack; Cicilline wants Congress to vote on escalation

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – U.S. Sen. Jack Reed offered a cautious response late Thursday night to President Trump’s airstrikes against Syria, immediately raising questions about what will happen next but not condemning the move.

Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, received calls from both Vice President Mike Pence and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford earlier Thursday evening to brief him on the military action, a spokesman confirmed.

In a statement later, Reed said the Trump administration “took action in response to the Assad regime’s illegal and horrific chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.” American forces fired 59 cruise missiles at a military airfield in northern Syria, according to CBS News.

“The question now is what the consequences and reactions will be, and what are the president’s strategic and long-range goals and plans with respect to U.S. involvement in Syria?” Reed continued.

“The administration is also going to have to set out the legal justification for tonight’s action and any future military operations against the Assad regime as part of its consultations with Congress,” Reed added. He did not go as far as another Democratic senator on the committee, Virginia’s Tim Kaine, who said it was “unlawful” for Trump to order the strikes without prior approval from Congress.

Reed was the first member of Rhode Island’s all-Democratic congressional delegation to make a public statement about the U.S. attack on Syria. But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse – who has been urging stronger American military action against the Assad regime for more than four years – went further and gave his blessing to Trump’s decision.

“Last night’s military action in Syria met my standards for responding to atrocity: a limited action; with a clear objective; that is not the beginning of American ‘boots on the ground’ military operations,” Whitehouse said Friday morning. He also said Americans are “called to conscience” after having “witnessed yet another atrocious act by the Assad regime against its own people.”

Congressman Jim Langevin also left no ambiguity in his statement, saying that in light of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Trump’s move “is justifiable, and I support this decision.” However, he called on the president to “consult with Congress to determine how the United States will deal with Assad’s regime and determine what our strategic objectives will be.”

Congressman David Cicilline was more circumspect, cataloging Assad’s crimes at length but declining to support or oppose the airstrikes. Like Reed, Cicilline also asked Trump to provide “legal justification” for them as well as “a comprehensive strategy” in Syria, and said any further escalation should be authorized by a vote in Congress.

State Rep. Bobby Nardolillo, a Republican who is scheduled to announce a U.S. Senate run against Whitehouse next month, hailed Trump’s decision, writing: “59 missiles. 1 strong message. Obama’s WEAK foreign policy is OVER! What happened to those Men, Women and Children in the Syrian chemical attack was awful.”

In Massachusetts, Congressman Joe Kennedy III struck a critical note.

“President Assad’s vicious brutality demands a response,” he said. “But this country doesn’t fight wars without giving the American people a say. Any plans for military engagement in Syria must come before their elected representatives in Congress for a debate and a vote. And any strategy that ignores the refugees fleeing this unimaginable terror is a half-step at best.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram