With military action looking imminent in Syria, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) grilled Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo Thursday on the constitutional limits of a president’s authority and the wisdom of the nation’s taking part in endless foreign engagements.
Pompeo, who currently serves as CIA director, unsurprisingly faced plenty of pointed questions from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing. But some of the most tense exchanges came with fellow Republican Paul, who quoted founding father James Madison.
Paul noted that Pompeo earlier in the hearing, in responding to a question about the constitutionality of ordering military actions without congressional authorization, had said presidents have done so in the past.
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“I don’t think that’s a complete enough answer,” Paul said. “I mean, my question would be, do you think it’s constitutional? Does the president have the constitutional authority to bomb [Syrian dictator Bashar al-]Assad’s forces?”
Pompeo seemed to suggest that congressional backing is desirable but not required.
“Those decisions are weighty. Every place we can, we should work alongside Congress to get that,” he said. “But, yes, I believe the president has the domestic authority to do that. I don’t think that has been disputed by Republicans or Democrats throughout an extended period of time.”
Retorted Paul: “Actually, it’s disputed mostly by our Founding Fathers, who believed they gave that authority to Congress.” Paul said the founders were unified on that point.
“In fact, Madison wrote very specifically. He said, the executive branch is the branch ‘most prone’ to war,” he said. “Therefore, we have with ‘studied care vested’ that authority in the legislature. So the fact that we have in the past done this doesn’t make it constitutional.”
Paul drew a contrast with Democrats who have criticized Pompeo. He said he worries the nominee would check the president’s natural instincts on foreign policy.
“Some here are worried you’re going to be too much in agreement with the president,” he said. “I actually worry you’re going to be too much in disagreement with the president.”
Pompeo responded with humor.
“Senator, it sounds like I have a Goldilocks problem,” he said.
“It sounds like you say it’s time to stay … I think we won the battle. We did. We literally did win. There’s nobody left alive who plotted to attack us on 9/11.”
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But Paul did not stop with Syria. He pressed Pompeo on his broader outlook on U.S. military engagements.
Pompeo said the ongoing involvement in Afghanistan is “humble in its mission.” He said America wants to leave but is not quite ready.
Paul noted that Americans who were not even born when the U.S. first launched bombing raids in the country following the 9/11 terrorist attacks are deploying there now. He referenced Trump’s past statements about wanting to bring the troops home.
“So the president said it was time to get out,” he said. “It sounds like you say it’s time to stay … I think we won the battle. We did. We literally did win. There’s nobody left alive who plotted to attack us on 9/11.”
Paul also called out Pompeo on his reluctance to declare the Iraq war a mistake, as Trump has done many times.
“We did, geopolitically, the wrong thing,” Paul said. “We got rid of the enemy of Iran. We emboldened Iran. We made it worse. We bought chaos to the Middle East.”