CINDY: Hi. This is Cindy (ph) calling from outside the Sun Gate on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains of Peru. This podcast was recorded at...
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
2:36 p.m. on Monday, January 6.
CINDY: Things might have changed by the time you hear this, and I will have completed my four-day hike to Machu Picchu. OK. Enjoy the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DAVIS: Machu Picchu's on my bucket list.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I've been there. It's so worth it.
DAVIS: Mara endorsement.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Yeah.
LIASSON: Total endorsement.
DAVIS: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
DAVIS: And the repercussions of President Trump's decision to order the killing of a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, are starting to emerge. That happened just on Friday, you guys. And since then, Iran has announced they will no longer limit their nuclear program. In Iraq, where Soleimani's killing took place, parliament voted to expel American forces. And here in the U.S., Congress is planning to vote to limit Trump's authority for additional military action against Iran.
Mara, it's getting real.
LIASSON: This is the most real thing Donald Trump has ever done, meaning the thing with the most real-world life-and-death potential consequences. Most of the other things, even the crises of his own making - the trade wars, pulling troops out of Syria - none of them had the potential consequences that this one does.
DAVIS: Why do you say that?
LIASSON: Well, first of all, this is Iran, most powerful player in the Middle East. He took out in Qassem Soleimani one of the most important political officials in Iran. This wasn't just, like, decapitating a terrorist organization, like taking out al-Baghdadi. So this guy was in a chain of command. Getting rid of him doesn't stop Iran's policies of supporting proxy terror groups in the region or causing trouble for Americans. That policy is still intact.
And the other reason I say it's real is because it's had a whole lot of consequences that seem to be the exact opposite of what Donald Trump's goals were in the Middle East. He said he wanted to get out of the Obama Iran nuclear deal in order to force Iran to come to the negotiating table and give him a better deal. That hasn't happened. Iran, as you just said, is closer now to making a bomb than it was before because they just said they weren't going to abide by the limits of the nuclear deal.
He said he wanted to put maximum economic pressure on the Iranian regime so Iranians would rise up against them. Instead, the killing of General Soleimani has unified Iranians and had an outpouring of nationalist feelings. So, so far, this doesn't seem to be working out in the way Donald Trump said he wanted the Middle East to work out.
RASCOE: And not to be flip about this, but this is something that whoever is the next president, whenever that happens - can't be reversed, right? Like, this is something that the U.S. will...
LIASSON: Right. This isn't an executive order.
RASCOE: Yes. This is something that the U.S. will face repercussions for, regardless of what else happens with President Trump.
LIASSON: Yeah. And we don't know what the political ramifications for this - I would say the whole theme of this entire episode is, we don't know.
DAVIS: But, Ayesha, Trump seems to, in his response in the days since his decision - has been really confrontational, really muscular, really defending this decision. He doesn't seem like he feels like he's made a mistake here.
RASCOE: Well, no. He - what President Trump has done since this happened is he's really went further and ratcheted up the rhetoric. He's been all over Twitter. He went on Twitter and threatened that if Iran did anything against the U.S., that the U.S. has 52 sites for the 52 hostages that were held back in...
LIASSON: Forty years ago.
RASCOE: Forty years ago - and that these sites include cultural sites. He said that he...
LIASSON: Which would be a war crime if we hit cultural sites.
DAVIS: Yeah. Let's pause on that for a minute because even President Trump, who says provocative things all the time - United States presidents saying they would be willing to strike a cultural site as retaliation for a possible military strike against the United States is still something we never hear from an American president.
LIASSON: No, because attacking a cultural site is a war crime under the Geneva Convention.
RASCOE: What President Trump said to reporters was that - you know, that Iran has killed, tortured and maimed U.S. citizens. And so he questioned, like, so we don't get to go after their cultural sites? And he - according to him, he said it doesn't work that way. But of course, as Mara said, according to the law, it does work that way - that if you purposely go after cultural sites, that that is a war crime.
LIASSON: What's really interesting about this whole episode, in addition to all of the other things that we don't know - we don't know what Donald Trump wants. We know he said he doesn't want regime change in Iran. He doesn't want war, but he does want the ability to hit cultural sites in retaliation. We don't even know if he knows what he wants, other than not to look weak.
DAVIS: How has the White House justified the decision-making behind the president's call to take out Soleimani?
RASCOE: So they point out that Soleimani and Iran, but Soleimani in particular, has been behind the deaths of U.S. citizens through proxies in the region - the deaths of, you know, hundreds of innocent people in the region. And they pointed out that he was planning more attacks.
DAVIS: Although they didn't say what they were.
RASCOE: We don't know what the attacks were or how imminent they were. But they're saying that there were attacks that were in the works and that by taking him out, they were able to save lives and that this is something where they basically have placed it as a buildup. There was the death of an American contractor. President Trump has repeatedly said that for him, the death of an American is a line that these countries should not cross. And then the U.S. responded to the death of that American contractor by going after some militia sites. But in response to that, you had this Iranian-backed militia begin attacking the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. And so after that, you had the death of Soleimani. So there did seem to be some building up to this.
DAVIS: Is it right to say that why this is so different is that in this war on terror that the United States has been fighting essentially since 9/11, a lot of these high-profile targets that have been taken out - Osama bin Laden, obviously one that people know - were stateless actors? They were terrorists. They led amorphous organizations.
DAVIS: And Soleimani...
LIASSON: This guy was in a chain of command, yeah.
DAVIS: ...Was a government official of a globally recognized government. And it is a fundamentally different decision, both on a foreign policy scale, on a legal scale, on a U.N. - you know, on a diplomacy scale. It just takes everything to the next level.
LIASSON: And he was killed on the territory of another sovereign country, Iraq. Iraq's parliament has now voted to expel American forces from their country, even though we don't know if that actually will happen or not. There's a lot more steps in Iraq that have to be gone through before the U.S. would be evicted.
DAVIS: And Trump said there would be consequences.
LIASSON: But Trump said, if you kick us out of Iraq, I'm going to put sanctions on you worse than the ones I put on Iran. Iraq is supposed to be our ally. So in other words, if that actually happens and U.S. troops are forced to leave Iraq, that makes Iran even more powerful in the region - it's already pretty powerful in Iraq - just like moving U.S. troops out of Syria made Iran more powerful there.
DAVIS: All right. So that's the view in Washington, but NPR's also on the ground in Tehran. Our colleague Mary Louise Kelly is there right now. And you can hear all of her reporting on Up First, our sister podcast run by Morning Edition, All Things Considered. And you can find that all on your local NPR station.
Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about what Congress is doing in all of this.
And we're back. And lawmakers are also back to Washington today after their holiday break. The administration is sending up some officials to Capitol Hill this week to meet with senators and members of the House behind closed doors to explain all of their rationale behind this decision. I imagine it might get a little heated.
RASCOE: Well, the president has been very confrontational and almost a bit dismissive of this idea that he needed to, you know, consult with Congress before he took this action. He basically tweeted over the weekend that his tweet was the notification to Congress that if Iran does anything else, then the U.S. will take action and retaliate.
LIASSON: That's the War Powers Act requirement for the White House. That's what he said the tweets were the equivalent of.
RASCOE: Yes, and he's - yes. So he was arguing that he doesn't have a legal requirement to notify Congress. People would say that he does. He says he doesn't. But if so, this - here you go. Here's this tweet.
DAVIS: If you're going to do policymaking by Twitter, I did see someone make a funny comment that you would at least need to tag Speaker Pelosi and Chuck Grassley, who's the president pro tem of the Senate, as the War Powers law requires you to notify the top leaders of the House and Senate. So you need - at least need to tag them in the future.
LIASSON: Unless you're Donald Trump, because then you don't have to do anything. You know, we've - so many times, we talk about this is a president who does things in a completely different way. And I can't think of another attack like this where the Gang of Eight has - that's the top members on the intelligence committees - have not been briefed and notified. And that's not what happened here.
RASCOE: So how is Congress reacting to all of this?
DAVIS: Not well. It's not going over well. You know, it's mainly been divided. Obviously, a lot of Republicans very publicly supportive of the president here. Even a lot of Democrats are not upset at the fact that Soleimani is dead.
I think the question is what happens next? I think Republicans are privately a little bit more concerned about what this means militaristically in the Middle East and whether more troops are going to be committed over there. That's not a fight that they're going to have out in public with the president. But Democrats are planning to move forward this week with war powers resolutions to essentially try to tie the president's hands in future military actions against Iran. House Speaker Pelosi says they're going to take that vote this week. Tim Kaine, who's a Democratic senator, said he's going to offer a companion resolution in the Senate, and they might have the votes to pass it. I don't think it will ultimately matter in the end because you need...
LIASSON: No, 'cause in the Senate - yeah.
DAVIS: ...Veto-proof majorities, and it doesn't sound like something Donald Trump's going to be eager to sign into law, but...
LIASSON: And it wouldn't pass the Senate anyway, presumably.
DAVIS: No. Well, I don't know. You know, the last time they did this, four Republicans sided with Democrats. They did take a vote on this in the Senate last year. It ultimately didn't get signed into law, but there has been bipartisan reluctance about increasing military engagement with Iran. So if it does pass, you know, it's not going to ultimately tie President Trump's hands, but it does sort of weaken him 'cause it would be the Congress rebuking the president on the global stage if he does have to further engage with Iran.
RASCOE: But this is something where this has been happening for years and decades, where the executive branch has had this power to act unilaterally when it comes to military and military engagements, and Congress hasn't really done much about it or to assert its power. This is not new. This is not a Trump administration thing. This has happened in numerous administrations, and it's just a very powerful executive.
DAVIS: Trump is benefiting from the strength of his predecessors, Obama and George W. Bush, in this regard in the post-9/11 era. And he's also benefiting from the weakness of Congress. And Congress has been controlled by every combination of power since 9/11 - Democrat-controlled, Republican-controlled, split-controlled. And every time they've been given an opportunity to reel back in some of those war-making powers, they blink. They don't want the power. They don't want the responsibility. And the end result is a really powerful president who doesn't have to come for Congress for much except more money if he needs more money to fight those wars.
LIASSON: Right. Congressional underreach actually turns out to be a bigger problem than congressional overreach.
DAVIS: All right. That's a wrap for today. We'll be back tomorrow. Until then, head to npr.org/politicsnewsletter to subscribe to our weekly roundup of the best online analysis from the NPR Politics team. It'll show up in your inbox every Saturday to let you know what happened that week and, hopefully, what it all means.
I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.
LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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