There is an emerging bipartisan consensus that the president has the sole authority to launch U.S. nuclear weapons at the time of his choosing, with no real checks or balances from anyone. Now the question is what to do about it.
Today, the U.S. Senate held its first hearing in 41 years on the president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons. Why now? As Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., put it, Americans are concerned that President Trump “is so unstable, is so volatile” that he might order a nuclear strike that is “wildly out of step” with our national security interests. “Let’s just recognize the exceptional nature of this moment in the discussion that we’re having today,” he said.
In a rare bipartisan consensus, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md., agreed that the president has the ability to launch U.S. nuclear weapons on his own authority. “The president has the sole authority to give that order, whether we are responding to a nuclear attack or not,” said Corker. “Once that order is given and verified, there is no way to revoke it.”
Sen. Cardin said, “Based on my understanding of the nuclear command-and-control protocol, there are no checks—no checks—on the President’s authority. The system as it is set up today provides the President with the sole and ultimate authority to use nuclear weapons.”
This agreement is important, because most Americans do not realize that President Donald Trump, all by himself, can order a civilization-ending nuclear attack. No one can stop him, and the weapons once launched cannot be recalled. This makes Trump the most dangerous man in the world—not just to others, but to the United States itself.
Sen. Corker has been worried about Trump and nuclear weapons for some time. Earlier this fall, he said, “We could be heading towards World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making.”
This weekend, Trump tweeted that he would never call Kim Jong-Un “short and fat,” the latest salvo in a war of words with nuclear-armed North Korea. As John Oliver put it, “This would be the stupidest possible reason for all of us to die.”
In this morning’s hearing, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., pointed out that Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, has threatened a preventive attack against North Korea. (On Oct. 16, McMaster told Fox News that the U.S. president “is not going to permit this rogue regime, Kim Jong-Un, to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon. And so he is willing to do anything necessary to prevent that from happening.”)
Sen. Markey added that “we should not be trusting the generals to be a check on the president,” and said that if there is a preemptive nuclear attack in the works, Congress must approve it.
But lawmakers’ actual role in approving a nuclear strike has long been left in ambiguity.
The senators pressed the witnesses for ways that Congress could responsibly restrict presidential authority. Bills have been offered by Sen. Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., to prohibit the first use of nuclear weapons without a declaration of war by Congress, and by Markey, Murphy, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to prohibit funding for a preemptive attack on North Korea without congressional consent. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., is also planning to introduce a bill that would make it the policy of the United States to never use nuclear weapons first, with the support of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The witnesses, however, represented a narrow range of opinions best described as the “no worries, all is well” crowd. The status quo panel said they did not support congressional efforts to limit presidential authority, arguing that this might undermine deterrence.
Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former head of Strategic Command, agreed that the president has sole launch authority, but sought to reassure the senators that “the military does not blindly follow orders” and that illegal orders would not be carried out. Those officers that might be tempted to question a presidential order of this kind should be reminded of Harold Hering. In 1973, Hering was training to be an Air Force nuclear missile launch officer. He asked his instructors: How can I be certain that any launch order I receive comes from a sane president? He was fired.
And, as Dr. Peter Feaver from Duke University put it, among military officers, “there is a presumption that the orders are legal.”
Meanwhile, Brian McKeon, a former acting defense undersecretary for policy, argued that the president was already barred from using nuclear weapons first, as this would be an act of war under the U.S. Constitution, and only Congress can declare war. However, given past statements, it appears that President Trump would find a way around this, perhaps by ordering a “preemptive” strike to stop an “imminent” attack.
The fact that the Senate held this hearing at all is a clear sign that some senators, at least, are unnerved by the fact that President Trump has his finger on the nuclear button. Doing something about it is another matter. The “do nothing” caucus is formidable. But so are the risks. “The statements the President makes through his Twitter account no doubt cause concern and confusion on the other side of the Pacific,” said McKeon. “I would be very worried about a miscalculation based on continuing use of his Twitter account with regard to North Korea.”