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Obama sought congressional approval for 2013 military intervention in Syria

After a sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb in August 2013, then-President Barack Obama sought authorization for the use of military force in Syria. Congress was against it.

<p><span style="color: rgb(26, 26, 26); font-family: "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif;">President Barack Obama holds the last news conference of his presidency in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House January 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)</span></p>

President Donald Trump’s decision to launch a missile strike against military targets loyal to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on Thursday has brought praise and condemnation on both sides of the aisle.

Statements from multiple lawmakers, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), cited failures of the Obama administration in their support of President Trump. The fact is President Obama sought to use force in Syria in 2013, and Congress did not approve.

A sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, 2013 killed hundreds of people. Countries reported differing numbers of those killed in the attack, with a preliminary assessment by the United States putting the number at 1,429, including at least 426 children. An Aug. 29, 2013 memo from the U.K. Joint Intelligence Organisation said “at least 350” people were killed.

On Aug. 31, 2013, President Obama said he had authorized the use of force against Syria, but would seek authorization from Congress before carrying out the strikes. Mr. Trump tweeted several times after the sarin attack, blasting the Obama administration. One such tweet, sent around 7 p.m. ET on Aug. 30, 2013 said, “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!

Obama’s authorization request was in the form of Senate Joint Resolution 21. The bill never received a floor vote and U.S. took the diplomatic route instead, negotiating with Russia on a deal to call for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons by June 2014. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad agreed to do so, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told the BBC in June 2014 that the country had finished shipping its stockpile out of the country. The Department of Defense states those weapons were neutralized in international waters on board the MV Cape Ray.

In 2013, Sen. Cruz penned an opinion column in the Washington Post titled, “Ted Cruz: Why I’ll vote no on Syria strike.” In the column, he said he would not vote on a Syria strike because Assad’s actions were “not a direct threat to U.S. national security,” those who oppose Assad are not necessarily better, and “the potential for escalation is immense.”

Cruz issued the following statement Thursday night regarding President Trump’s missile strike:

“Today, after eight years of Obama foreign policy failures, Syria is a humanitarian disaster. Bashar al-Assad is a monster, a puppet of Russia and Iran, and he has once again used chemical weapons against his own citizens, murdering innocent men, women, and children.

“Our prayers are with Assad’s victims, and with the victims of the ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists ripping Syria apart. And, as always, our support and prayers are with the brave Americans in uniform who carried out the military strike tonight.

“Any military action in Syria must be justified as protecting the vital national security interests of America – including decisive action to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of radical Islamic terrorists – and I look forward to our Commander-in-Chief making the case to Congress and the American people how we should do so in the days ahead.”

The New York Times reported in September 2013 that Sens. McCain and Graham met with Obama, and the Times reported that McCain was ready to back the president after that meeting. NPR reported McCain said he saw indications Obama was willing to do more, but noted they still had “significant concerns.”

McCain and Graham issued this joint statement Thursday night:

“We salute the skill and professionalism of the U.S. Armed Forces who carried out tonight’s strikes in Syria. Acting on the orders of their commander-in-chief, they have sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.

“Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action. For that, he deserves the support of the American people. Building on tonight’s credible first step, we must finally learn the lessons of history and ensure that tactical success leads to strategic progress. That means following through with a new, comprehensive strategy in coordination with our allies and partners to end the conflict in Syria. The first measure in such a strategy must be to take Assad’s air force—which is responsible not just for the latest chemical weapons attack, but countless atrocities against the Syrian people—completely out of the fight. We must also bolster support for the vetted Syrian opposition and establish safe zones to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis. As we do, we can and must continue the campaign to achieve ISIS’s lasting defeat.”

Others within Congress have backed the strike, but questioned whether President Trump had the authority to launch it.

“Tonight, the United States launched missiles at an airfield in Syria. The Assad regime’s repeated chemical attacks on its own citizens are war crimes and indisputably horrific, but Congress plays an important role in authorizing military force. I continue to believe that Congress must authorize any additional use of force against the Syrian government,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas).

"While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked," said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) in a set of tweets. "The President needs Congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution, and I call on him to come to Congress for a proper debate."

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he would "work with the President, but his failure to seek Congressional approval is unlawful."

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) used a screen capture of President Trump’s Aug. 30 tweet with the hashtag “#bigmistake.”

It should be noted that Congress and the White House were not on good terms in 2013, which culminated in a 16-day shutdown of the federal government in October 2013.

The Hill reported in September 2013 that before any votes were cast on military action in Syria, President Obama was facing steep opposition in both the Senate and House. A Washington Post whip count of votes in Congress painted a downright bleak picture for authorizing military action, with 263 House representatives against a military intervention in Syria. At the time, Congress was against it.

As of Friday afternoon, whip counts are not available regarding a formal authorization regarding the use of military force against Syria under President Trump.

Other Trump stories this week:

On Monday, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner made an unannounced trip to Iraq with Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The New York Times reported on Thursday that Kushner, who is also a senior adviser to President Trump, failed to disclose on security clearance forms that he had been in contact with Russia’s ambassador and the head of a Russian state-owned bank in recent months.

On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order to remove Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. Secretary of Energy and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was added to the principals list for the council.

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes on Thursday stepped aside from the Russia investigation, after it was revealed the Office of Congressional Ethics had opened an investigation into him. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) has been named to take over the investigation.

Also on Thursday, the Senate voted to invoke the so-called “nuclear option” to advance the vote on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch was confirmed by a 54-45 vote on Friday.

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