Worried about Trump’s volatility, a Senate panel discusses his authority to use nuclear weapons

Senators tried to determine whether there's a way to introduce safeguards into Trump's ability to launch a "first-use" nuclear strike.

Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., left, listens to General C. Robert Kehler, right, USAF (Ret.) former Commander United States Strategic Command, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on North Korea on Capitol Hill in Washington. CREDIT: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo.
Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., left, listens to General C. Robert Kehler, right, USAF (Ret.) former Commander United States Strategic Command, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on North Korea on Capitol Hill in Washington. CREDIT: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo.

A Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on Tuesday sought to review the extent of the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons, and ultimately led to a discussion about Donald Trump’s judgment. Some Senators, like Chris Murphy (D-CT), expressed their worry over Trump’s absolute authority to deploy a nuclear weapon. “We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable and is so volatile…that he might order a nuclear weapon strike.” This, Murphy said, would be “wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.”

Tuesday’s hearing was the first time in 41 years that lawmakers have zeroed in on such a manner on the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons. The reasons for the timing of this hearing are clear: President Donald Trump has threatened nuclear-armed North Korea with “fire and fury” over Pyongyang’s refusal to get rid of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. His national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, has also spoken to the possibility of a “preventative war” on the Korean Peninsula.

Some lawmakers have also become increasingly vocal critics of Trump — especially Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who led Tuesday’s hearing, and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who also sits on the committee. What became clear through the course of the hearing wasn’t so much that the senators had no faith in the lawyers and generals charged with advising a U.S. president. The issue is Trump, about whom Corker has said “could lead us into a world war.”

Under existing laws, the U.S. president can start a nuclear war without consultation or provocation. In other words, there’s nothing limiting Trump’s use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent only.

“It boggles the rational mind,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). “I fear that in the age of Trump the cooler heads and the strategic doctrine that we once relied upon as our last best hope against the unthinkable seem less reassuring than ever.” Markey wondered why the Constitutional checks and balances that prevent a president from making extreme decisions do not apply to Trump’s authority to use nuclear weapons. Here, none of Trump’s generals can hold him back, said Markey, and his “bombastic words could turn into nuclear reality.”

Markey has introduced legislation to prevent the president from launching first-use strike without congressional authorization.

This conversation is “obviously motivated by concern about Donald Trump’s judgment, his impulsivity, his reckless statements about nuclear weapons,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told ThinkProgress. But it was also about the issue of the U.S. president’s sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, especially in a crisis.

Although Kimball felt the hearing only “scratched the surface,” he said it also revealed that, “even if military or civilian advisers advise the president not to execute a launch, even if they advise him that a particular scenario might not be consistent with our interpretation of the law of war and nuclear weapons, he can counterman that advice — he can go ahead. There is no legal check on his ability to go ahead.”

“That means that in these extreme circumstance, the lives of millions people depend on the judgment of one person. And when that one person happens to be Donald Trump, we all have good reason to be a little less comfortable,” Kimball added.

Testifying at the hearing were Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Brian McKeon, former acting undersecretary for policy at the Department of Defense, and Peter D. Feaver, a professor at Duke University, all of whom tried to reassure the committee of the unlikelihood of Trump going rogue, and that adopting a “no first-use” policy would take away some of the ambiguity that would keep U.S. adversaries in check. Kehler emphasized the human chain involved in making a nuclear strike happen as well as civilian control of the system as well as “assessment, review and consultation.”

Feaver, however, noted “even a single nuclear detonation would be so consequential and might trigger an escalatory spiral that would lead to civilization-threatening outcomes,” something Kehler agreed with “in theory.” Although, he pointed out, the sheer horror of an uncontrolled nuclear incident is part of its “deterrence features.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) worried that the hearing might lead to “creating doubt” in the minds of U.S. partners, possibly having encouraging “some of them to pursue their own deterrent capability,” while maybe allowing U.S. adversaries to think they “can get away with something.”

Making it look as though the president can’t act “expeditiously,” said Rubio might lead to a serious miscalculation on behalf of someone who “isolated from the world, don’t get a lot of information and have never had anyone tell them they’re wrong or ‘no.'” To be clear, Rubio was speaking of North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.

“There’s a difference between irrational ambiguity and calculated ambiguity,” said Kimball. “And what we need in the nuclear command-and-control structure is precision and checks and balances,” he said, adding that he does not believe the United States should make its opponents “guess” when it will use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances.

“At the end of the day, what would matter most is the human element: Would the president’s advisers be in a position to provide timely council? And would that council shape the president’s decisions?” wondered Feaver, who also asked about whether the military chain of command would recognize the legality of a “valid, authenticated nuclear use order.”

The human element in mitigating risk, he said, is crucial, which is why, despite having the technology, we haven’t developed nuclear weapons that eliminate the human decision-making factor. Feaver spoke favorably of possible reviews of the current protocols so long as they did not usurp the president’s authority.

Kimball said he’d like to see more hearings on why the United States is operating under the current “launch-under-attack” Cold War strategy, which holds that the United States should “use or lose” its nuclear weapons before they are hit by an adversary. “That’s what forces the president of the United States to have to make a decision within minutes … why are we in this situation in the first place?” he asked.

While there were recommendations for some safeguards — such as having another civilian in the chain of command who is authorized to confirm a launch order — it did not seem to reassure those who are worried about the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons.

Near the hearing’s end, Markey noted that President Trump can still “launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account, without a check-and-balance that the United States Congress would be seeking and Constitutionally be responsible to exercise.”