When President Clinton launched a series of military strikes in Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq in 1998, critics quickly denounced the moves as cynical, political attempts to distract Americans from his impeachment.
They pointed to the 1997 movie “Wag the Dog,” in which a president embroiled in a sex scandal stages a fake war with a tiny country to change the national conversation.
Before entering politics, Donald Trump as a private citizen several times predicted — incorrectly — that President Obama would resort to a similar strategy. “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran,” he tweeted in late 2011, making a similar statement in 2012.
So when President Trump this week ordered drone strikes that killed an Iranian leader blamed for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers, he risked a similar backlash.
But so far, few elected Democratic officials have directly accused Trump of launching the attack to divert attention from his impeachment and impending Senate trial, appearing reluctant to mix the politics of two of Congress’ gravest responsibilities: declaring war and impeaching a president.
The top Republican and Democrat in the Senate, during speeches to open a new session of Congress on Friday, went to great lengths to verbally separate the two topics.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said that Trump acted recklessly without congressional approval in the targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani. But he spoke separately about the pending impeachment trial in the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) likewise made no effort to link the two in her statements Friday.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) acknowledged that both impeachment and a possible military confrontation with Iran are “two big momentous decisions” Congress now faces. “As to their collision,” he said, “we’ll have to just see what happens.”
As lawmakers return to Washington next week, the political debate around both issues will only grow more feverish. And the subtext is all but certain to bubble to the surface.
A few Democrats are already questioning Trump’s motives.
“I’m concerned that the now impeached president’s actions may have been predicated in politics rather than sound foreign policy,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), citing Trump’s past tweets about Obama and Iran. “Perhaps Donald Trump believes that if he drags the country into war, the American people and Congress will rally behind him. Perhaps he thinks that war is a diversionary tactic. Perhaps he thinks it will drown out the criticisms of his scandal-plagued administration and protect him from removal by the Senate.”
The strikes have also prompted a debate over whether Trump had congressional approval to take the action. Republican allies say Trump has a right to take quick action when the country’s safety is at risk. Democratic critics say the action needed explicit congressional approval, as well as the customary notification to a select, bipartisan group of congressional leaders.
Schumer and Pelosi were not notified in advance, according to their aides. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who played golf with Trump earlier this week, said he was informed about the impending strike. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) aide declined to say when the leader learned about the strike.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has introduced a resolution to force a debate over whether to go to war with Iran. Senate rules require that the Senate take up the resolution for debate and a vote, forcing lawmakers to choose sides.
“We owe it to our service members to have a debate and vote about whether or not it’s in our national interest to engage in another unnecessary war in the Middle East,” Kaine said.
Meanwhile, the standoff between the Democratic House and the GOP Senate over the upcoming impeachment trial grew more protracted on Friday. The status of the trial has been in a state of limbo since shortly after the House voted, almost entirely along partisan lines, to impeach the president Dec. 18.
After the House voted last month, the articles of impeachment were expected to swiftly go to the Senate for a trial to determine if Trump should be removed from office. Trump is not expected to be convicted in the Senate because Democrats have nowhere near the 67 votes needed to remove him.
But Pelosi has held the articles in the House, hoping to give Senate Democrats leverage in their negotiations with Senate Republicans for more favorable terms for the trial. McConnell wants to hold opening arguments and then decide whether to allow subpoenas for witnesses and documents. But Democrats want witnesses from the outset, warning that McConnell’s plan would allow Republican senators to present only a “mock trial” to the country while delivering a positive verdict for Trump.
McConnell on Friday appeared unmoved from his position, arguing that the Senate has no responsibility to act as an impartial criminal court.
“Instead of sending the articles to the Senate, they flinched,” McConnell said of House Democrats. “The same people who’d just spent weeks screaming that impeachment was so serious and so urgent that it could not even wait for due process now decided it could wait indefinitely while they checked the political winds and looked for new talking points.”
Pelosi showed no sign of changing her mind either.
“Today, Leader McConnell made clear that he will feebly comply with President Trump’s cover-up of his abuses of power and be an accomplice to that cover-up,” she said. “The GOP Senate must immediately proceed in a manner worthy of the Constitution and in light of the gravity of the President’s unprecedented abuses. No one is above the law, not even the president.”
McConnell indicated that the Senate will continue to confirm Trump nominees to administration jobs as it waits for Pelosi to send the articles of impeachment.