LEILA FADEL, HOST:
It's been an unsettling first few days for a new decade. President Trump rocked the Middle East and set much of the world on edge when he ordered the assassination of one of Iran's top military generals early Friday morning in Baghdad. Qassem Soleimani was the leader of the revolution in - Revolutionary Guards elite Quds force, and the aftershocks of his killing are being felt worldwide. Iran's supreme leader vowed revenge, and many officials in Washington were blindsided by the action.
For more, we turn to NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Thank you so much, Ron, for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Leila.
FADEL: So, Ron, does the president have the authority to do this, to target and kill a top-level military official of a country we're not at war with?
ELVING: Tricky question. Let's go back to the week after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Congress passed an authorization for the use of military force against terrorists. And we've seen presidents use that to target and kill people we've called terrorists ever since - Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Those are the big names, but there have been thousands targeted in drone strikes, most of which never make the news.
And we've seen Congress and the public by and large accepting and even applauding this policy. And that's why we keep hearing Soleimani described as a terrorist. But as you say, he is also a top-level military official of a sovereign country we are not at war with, so international standards are going to be different here and the consequences as well.
FADEL: So what's been the reaction from members of Congress?
ELVING: You have, on one hand, Rand Paul of Kentucky - he's a Republican - and he's been saying this is the end of diplomacy and negotiation and the beginning of war with Iran. But more generally, it's been predictably partisan and polarized. The president's allies say it's about time somebody got this guy. And Democrats are saying they're glad Soleimani is gone, but Congress should have been consulted or at least notified, and the usual protocol of notice was not followed here. So maybe it's OK this time because it's him, but where does this end?
FADEL: Last night President Trump spoke to a coalition of evangelicals for Trump at the King Jesus International Ministry in Miami. What did he say about the killing?
ELVING: He said Soleimani had wounded or killed thousands, including hundreds of Americans. He called it a bloody rampage. He also said Soleimani was plotting against Americans, planning a very major attack in the near future. We do not know what the basis for that might have been, that last allegation, but it was enough for this president.
FADEL: What's the impact on the other main issue hanging over Washington right now - the upcoming impeachment trial?
ELVING: It's an enormous distraction in terms of public attention. Something else is suddenly front and center, but it doesn't alter the impeachment process, which is in a state of suspended animation right now anyway. Just yesterday, we heard the two leaders of the parties in the Senate saying they had made no progress on a set of rules for the trial. So now, we have two crises in Washington, and they may be on a collision course.
FADEL: So we're also weeks out from the first presidential primary and caucus. Does this event box in the Democrats who are running to replace the president?
ELVING: There is a standard response if you're running for president as a Democrat. You say Soleimani was a bad guy; we're glad to have him gone, but then you raise at least a question about the manner in which this was done and all the people who were left in the dark about it. Is the president, in fact, all powerful now, an autocrat who can kill as he wishes overseas as long as it's someone we can call a terrorist? And is President Trump, the president who said he wanted to end the endless wars in the Middle East, is he now on the verge of starting a new one with a major regional power in Iran?
FADEL: And so I guess we'll see how voters respond.
ELVING: We will, indeed. The voters get the last word in 10 months. And by then, we will have seen how Iran responded, how the United States responded to that. We don't really know where this will go.
FADEL: NPR's Ron Elving. Thank you so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.