Trump’s power to launch nuclear weapons under Senate scrutiny

Nafeesa Syeed
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump’s power to launch nuclear weapons is under scrutiny by 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,” Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a hearing Tuesday. Corker, who has emerged as a 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.

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 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.

Sen. 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 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.”

Recent Trump comments: Trump has used confrontational and conciliatory language on North Korea in recent days. On Saturday, 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 Senate Foreign Relations panel hearing, lawmakers pressed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about policies for using nuclear weapons. Mattis was asked whether the president could launch a first strike with nuclear weapons, 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.”

Tuesday’s hearing reflected the “exceptional nature” of the present context, said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-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.