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Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine Discusses Possible Military Action Against Syria


President Trump was supposed to travel to South America this week - not anymore. The White House says he's staying put to manage the U.S. response against Syria after an alleged chemical attack over the weekend. We don't know yet what that response will be. There isn't much agreement among members of Congress of what Trump's response should be.

We're going to turn now to Senator Tim Kaine. The Virginia Democrat is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee. Senator Kaine, welcome to the program.

TIM KAINE: Great to be with you, Audie. Thanks.

CORNISH: You were tweeting today saying that President Trump is not king and that he needs to come to Congress if he wants to initiate military action. Do you fear he's going to order strikes or take some other action without getting authorization from Congress?

KAINE: Yes, I do worry about that. He took - launched military strikes against Syria about a year ago. I think there's a good argument to be made that there should be a military tough response to using chemical weapons against civilians, but that's not something that the president can just do on his own. He is required to come to Congress and seek congressional approval for it. And I think we need to make sure that he does.

CORNISH: But aren't there already troops in Syria?

KAINE: There are. The troops that are in Syria there are justified by the administration as being there pursuant to a congressional authorization to fight terrorist groups including ISIS. But an action against a sovereign nation, Syria, that has not declared war on the United States is very, very different.

CORNISH: Are you against airstrikes in general in this case? I mean, if there was a vote, would you be a yes vote?

KAINE: I actually would lean yes because we had a similar vote in August of 2014, and I voted yes at the time. It ended up that that bill never passed. But I do think you need to take steps to punish the violation of a Geneva Convention like using chemical weapons. It's barbaric. But if this president can decide unilaterally to bomb Syria, I worry that he can make the same decision about North Korea or Iran or other nations. And these decisions are not supposed to be made without consultation and voting by Congress.

CORNISH: So your concern is about giving President Trump free rein essentially, that this would somehow go beyond Syria.

KAINE: Yes, I am. I think the Congress has already sort of given presidents a blank check when they rewrote the 2001 war authorization after the attack on the Pentagon. They used open-ended words. There basically has been no time limitation on that war against terrorist organizations, no geographic limitation.

I'm working with colleagues to try to rewrite the 2001 authorization to impose some restrictions and limitations. But I definitely worry that a president who would initiate military action against a sovereign nation that hasn't declared war against the United States - if he can do it against Syria, he could do it against anybody.

CORNISH: Now, in the days before this latest chemical attack, President Trump said U.S. troops should leave Syria after ISIS is defeated. We have Senator Mitch McConnell today saying that the U.S. forces should stay in Syria to prevent ISIS from re-establishing itself in areas of the country. Where do you stand on this?

KAINE: Audie, that is the second concern that I have. It's not just a congressional vote about military action. It's what is the strategy in Syria? We've been pressing the administration for a number of months. Is it to defeat ISIS? Is it to battle Assad? Is it to check Iran's influence? Is it to check Russia's influence? Is it to support the Kurds in the north?

We have not had an administration plan that has been laid out to us about what the goal now is in Syria once the sort of battlefield of ISIS has been shrunk down and eliminated. Thus far, we don't know what the strategy is of the administration. They need to bring a strategy to the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees and lay that out. And that is the second piece. Congress needs to vote to approve war, but we've got troops there now. And the administration isn't being exactly clear about what their continuing mission is.

CORNISH: Senator Tim Kaine, thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KAINE: Glad to, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.