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Zirpoli: In a democracy, the president should not be above the law

As usual, things are a little confusing at the White House these days. Not everyone is on the same page with their talking points. Or is it their tweeting points?

President Donald Trump said that he would target Iranian cultural sites if Iran attacked American targets in Iraq. Military attacks on cultural sites are against American and international law. Trump repeated the threat multiple times over several days.

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Trump repeated his threat on the same day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on Fox News Sunday saying, “President Trump didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site. Read what he said very closely.” Well, we don’t need to read what Trump said because he’s repeating it on another channel.

But just in case Trump did bomb cultural sites, Pompeo told CNN on the same day, it would not be a violation of international law. Pompeo was either lying or is ignorant. Destroying cultural sites is a violation of the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1972 World Heritage Convention. The United States is a signature nation to both.

Isn’t it sad that our secretary of state has to deny the reality of American and international laws to cover for his boss?

Incidentally, the last military group to destroy Christian and Muslim cultural sites was ISIS when they took over parts of Syria and Iraq. That’s Trump making America great.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper does understand the law.

When asked on CNN about Trump’s threat, Esper stated that, “We will follow the laws of armed conflict.” When asked if that meant not bombing cultural sites, Esper stated, “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

Trump also ignored the 1973 War Power Act which requires the president to notify Congress before the use of military force unless an attack is “imminent” and the president needs to act. But the administration has been unable to point to any intelligence of an imminent attack from Soleimani or a second target in Yemen which failed. And Trump keeps changing his reason for killing Soleimani.

When members of Congress were finally briefed on Soleimani’s assassination, even some of Trump’s most ardent Republican defenders complained about the lack of evidence of an imminent attack.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called the briefing “an insult to the Constitution.” Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah called the briefing the “worst briefing I’ve had on a military issue in my nine years” in the Senate.

The White House then said that they really didn’t need to share information with Congress. Lee called the suggestion “unAmerican” and “completely unacceptable.” Lee then shared their talking points: “Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran. And that if you do, you’ll be emboldening Iran.” In other words, if you ask questions, as we do in a democracy, you support the terrorists.

Eight days after the attack, Trump announced on Fox News that Soleimani was planning to attack four U.S. embassies. Days earlier, he said one embassy. Before that, he said Soleimani was killed for previous attacks against Americans. Meanwhile, both the secretary of state and the secretary of defense have said that they had no specifics about imminent attacks. Sounds like Trump was making stuff up.

Recent media reports state that Trump had Soleimani killed to appease conservative members of the Senate prior to his impeachment trial and to fire up his base. I believe that Trump also had Soleimani killed because former President Barack Obama thought it was a bad idea. Obama understood the long-term negative consequences for America security and our ability to operate in the Middle East. All it took, I’m sure, was for someone to say, “Obama thought it was a bad idea” for Trump to think it was the best idea ever.

Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, made the point that Trump’s behavior, before and after the Soleimani killing, was consistent with his behavior with Ukraine. His actions have nothing to do with following sound foreign policy or even what is good for America. It is always about what is good for Trump. To this end, Trump believes that he has the power to “break the law with impunity because he is president,” said Richardson. “A president who is above the law is a dictator. The reason people keep harping on the legality of the Soleimani killing is not because they like terrorists but because if we do not defend the rule of law we have permitted both its destruction, and the destruction of the democracy on which it depends.”

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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