Trump's Power to Use Nuclear Weapons Under Senate Scrutiny

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  • Corker calls that authority the ‘most consequential of all’
  • Trump critic says hearing is first on nuclear issue since 1976

U.S. President Donald Trump

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Donald Trump’s power to launch nuclear weapons is under scrutiny by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress concerned over his comments about striking North Korea.

Going to war is a “heavy responsibility” for elected leaders, and the decision to use nuclear weapons is the “most consequential of all,” Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a hearing Tuesday. Corker, who has emerged as vocal critic of Trump’s foreign policy, said he wanted to explore the “realities of this system” that allows the president to use nuclear weapons.

Bob Corker

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The current process for deploying nuclear weapons “means that the president has the sole authority to give that order -- whether we are responding to a nuclear attack or not,” said Corker, who has vowed a series of hearings on the issue. “Once that order is given and verified, there is no way to revoke it.”

Corker’s hearing is the first time since 1976 that either the House or the Senate has discussed the authority and process for the use of nuclear weapons, he said. The Tennessee Republican, who said he won’t seek re-election next year, has had a public feud with Trump, calling the White House an “adult day-care center” and saying the U.S. secretaries of state and defense are “the people that help separate our country from chaos.”

Trump has countered by calling Corker a “lightweight” who couldn’t get re-elected if he ran again in 2018.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said he’s been receiving “more and more questions” during town hall meetings with constituents about whether the president can order a nuclear attack without any controls. He said those comments are fueled by Trump’s statements about North Korea, including his remark in August that the U.S. could respond to threats from Pyongyang with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

“Many interpret that to mean that the president is actively considering the use of nuclear weapons in order to deal with the threat of North Korea. That is frightening,” Cardin said. “There are no checks on the president’s authority.”

Hot and Cold

Trump has used both confrontational and conciliatory language about North Korea in recent days. On Nov. 11, he said it was “certainly a possibility” that he could become friends with Kim Jong Un, hours after insulting the North Korean leader on Twitter. And days after calling on Kim to enter peaceful negotiations, he spoke before South Korea’s parliament and listed a litany of alleged human-rights abuses against the North Korean leader, calling him a “deranged tyrant” presiding over a “cult.”

At an Oct. 30 hearing of the Foreign Relations panel, members pressed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about policies on using nuclear weapons. Mattis was asked whether the president could launch a first strike, without consulting Congress, against another nuclear-armed country preparing to attack the U.S.

“If we saw they were preparing to do so and it was imminent, I could imagine it. It’s not the only tool in the toolkit to try to address something like that,” Mattis said. “But I believe that congressional oversight does not equate to operational control. I think that we have to keep trust, keep faith in the system that we have that has proven effective now for decades.”

‘Preventive War’

During Tuesday’s testimony, several senators cited concerns about Trump considering a preemptive strike on North Korea as well as comments from National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster that the president isn’t ruling out a “preventive war” to stop North Korea.

“That means there could be plans in place right now in the White House given to the president to launch a preemptive war against North Korea,” said Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. The American people “can still realize that Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account without the check and balance of the United States Congress.”

The hearing reflected the “exceptional nature” of the present context, said Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.

“We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapon strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests,” Murphy said.

Still, some senators defended Trump. James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, said from a practical standpoint, it’s up to the president to quickly make the call on nuclear weapons and there isn’t time to get lawyers involved.

“Pyongyang needs to understand that they’re dealing with a person, who’s commander-in-chief right now, who is very focused on defending this country and he will do what is necessary to defend this country,” Risch said.

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