Trump’s nuclear threats aren’t going over well with military officials

"If it's illegal...I'm gonna say, 'Mr. President, that's illegal.'"

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, is escorted at Offutt Air Force Base by Gen. John E. Hyten, the head of Strategic Command, in Bellevue, Neb., Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.  CREDIT: AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, is escorted at Offutt Air Force Base by Gen. John E. Hyten, the head of Strategic Command, in Bellevue, Neb., Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Yet another military official pushed back on President Donald Trump’s nuclear ambitions this weekend, saying he would resist any “illegal” decision to launch nuclear weapons.

Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command or STRATCOM, told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada on Saturday that he would likely offer resistance to an order from Trump to launch a nuclear strike.

“I think some people think we’re stupid,” Hyten said, referring to public perceptions about STRATCOM, which is responsible for national nuclear weapons and missile defense. “We’re not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?”

He continued, “I provide advice to the President. He’ll tell me what to do, and if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m gonna say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ Guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”

Hyten’s comments were seemingly spurred by a Senate hearing last week during which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern regarding Trump’s authority over the country’s nuclear program as tensions with North Korea rise. Prior to the meeting, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) indicated he was worried Trump had placed the United States on “the path to World War III” with his frequent threats to world leaders like Kim Jong-un.

Following the meeting, Corker’s feelings seemed unchanged. “I do not see a legislative solution today,” the senator told reporters.

Several of Corker’s colleagues echoed that sentiment.

“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 strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. interests,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT).

But military officials pushed back on any congressional effort to shift nuclear control away from the president’s control, emphasizing their own roles in missile authorization. Retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who led STRATCOM under the Obama administration, cautioned that there are a number of legal safeguards in place to prevent a disastrous situation.

“U.S. nuclear forces operate under strict civilian control. Only the president of the United States can order the employment of U.S. nuclear weapons,” Kehler said. “This is a system controlled by human beings … nothing happens automatically. If there is an illegal order presented to the military, the military is obligated to refuse to follow it.”

That ongoing back-and-forth highlights Trump’s tenuous relationship with the generals surrounding him. The president has shown a partiality for military figures — a number have been appointed to various federal posts and Cabinet positions. That proximity has worried observers, some of whom feel that the military has outsized power in the Trump administration. But comments like Hyten’s show that the dynamic goes both ways — especially when it comes to nuclear authorization.

In August, Trump seemed to imply that nuclear showdown was imminent. “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” he tweeted.

But Defense Secretary James Mattis quickly walked back those comments. “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” he told reporters later that same day. Less than two months later, the defense secretary also contradicted an NBC news report that Trump wanted a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, calling it “absolutely false.”

Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, has also emphasized the importance of diplomacy in talks with North Korea and downplayed the president’s rhetoric.

“Right now we think the threat is manageable,” he said in October, following Trump’s assertion that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” with diplomatic efforts. “But over time, if it grows beyond where it is today — well, let’s hope diplomacy works,” Kelly continued.

Such push-back has fueled speculation that Mattis, along with Kelly and National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, are working together to restrain Trump, who is prone to bold declarations and threats. Hyten’s comments about resisting “illegal” nuclear decisions has further cemented the perception that Trump’s proximity to military brass is only giving them greater power and control — even if it is the president who ultimately has the power to call for a nuclear strike.

Nuclear weapons aren’t the only issue on which military figures have refuted Trump. When the president called for a ban on transgender military members in August, Mattis allowed them to remain, pending further review. He has also indicated support for the nuclear deal with Iran, as has McMaster.