On Aug. 21, 2013, hundreds of people in the Syrian capital Damascus woke up in the middle of the night convulsing and foaming at the mouth.
The United States and much of the international community concluded that the Syrian government had launched a sarin gas attack on its own citizens.
Days later, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested that he would look into pursuing military action against the Syrian regime. He was swiftly reminded that he would be unable to do so without first securing authorization from Congress — by none other than Donald J. Trump.
On Thursday however, President Donald Trump ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airbase without approval from Congress or the United Nations. The attack came in direct retaliation to this week’s deadly chemical attack against Syrian civilians, for which the U.S. holds President Bashar al-Assad responsible.
WATCH: U.S. carries out military action against Syrian regime
Whereas Obama once hinted that chemical weapon attacks would constitute a “red line” that could prompt U.S. military intervention, Trump has put his money where his mouth is by actually ordering strikes.
But did he break the law by doing so?
The War Powers Resolution of 1973 states that “The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances.”
The legislation adds that the president must then continue to consult with Congress until U.S. forces are no longer engaged in hostilities.
The law does give the president “leeway to respond to attacks or other emergencies,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Unlike those groups, however, the Syrian regime hasn’t been held responsible for any attacks on U.S. citizens or targets.
But nor was the Libyan government — and that didn’t stop the Obama administration from using force in Libya in 2011.
On that occasion, the U.S. Attorney General opined that Obama was justified in bypassing Congress because the Libyan regime’s brutality against its own citizens risked fostering regional unrest and provoking a major refugee crisis.
Indeed, the Congressional Research Service points out that Congress hasn’t actually officially declared war on anybody since World War II — and this hasn’t stopped the U.S. from engaging in military campaigns in different parts of the world.
All of which may explain why lawmakers were reluctant to condemn Trump’s decision to launch some 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airfield in Homs, even while questioning his reasoning.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, pointed out that “the United States was not attacked.”
“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,” Paul said in a statement.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton‘s running mate in her unsuccessful presidential campaign against Trump, said in a statement that “Congress will work with the President, but his failure to seek Congressional approval is unlawful.”
Just hours before the strikes, Clinton herself said that she favoured aggressive action against al-Assad.
“I really believe we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them,” Clinton said in an interview.
WATCH: Senator Rubio says U.S. airstrike on Syria was ‘the right move’
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said he was “gravely concerned that the United States is engaging further militarily in Syria without a well-thought-out, comprehensive plan.”
“Frankly, the president’s actions today generate more questions than answers.”
A couple dozen members of Congress were briefed about the operation Thursday, but Trump didn’t secure permission from the 535 representatives of the American people.
However that doesn’t appear to pose a major problem for Trump for the time being.
— With files from The Associated Press and Reuters