The Senate will challenge Trump’s ability to use nuclear weapons whenever he wants

source
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

  • If President Donald Trump decides to fire nuclear weapons, nobody in the military or government can stop him.
  • One of Trump’s fiercest critics in the Senate will hold a hearing challenging the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons.
  • While the president’s unhindered access to nuclear weapons troubles many, it’s not clear how the system can be improved.

If President Donald Trump wants to fire nuclear weapons at virtually any target on earth, nobody, not the secretary of defense, not Congress, and not even the nuclear launch officer underground in a silo pressing the button would be in a position to stop him.

But on Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing over the president’s authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.

While the hearing nominally will look at the structure of nuclear command and control that has served all presidents, it’s headed by Bob Corker, one of Trump’s most vocal critics among Senate Republicans.

Corker scolded Trump just a month ago, saying “the White House has become an adult day care center.” He warned that Trump’s brash style of leadership could send the US “on the path to World War III.”

Trump has extensively explored the idea of preemptive war with North Korea, a rogue nuclear nation he has verbally sparred with and threatened to “totally destroy.”

“This discussion is long overdue,” Corker said of the hearing on the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons.

In underground silos, underwater submarines, and at Air Force bases around the world, US military officials stand ready to launch a nuclear strike on nothing more than the word of the president.

caption
In underground silos, underwater submarines, and at Air Force bases around the world, US military officials stand ready to launch a nuclear strike on nothing more than the word of the president.
source
Senior Airman Kyla Gifford/US Air Force

Corker and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee don’t stand alone in their will to see the president’s nuclear powers revisited.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration in January, Democrats in the House introduced a protest bill designed to curb Trump’s ability to issue a nuclear first strike without congressional approval.

Congressional approval is required for the use of conventional military force, but nuclear powers remain firmly under the grip of the president and have since the dawn of the nuclear era.

While few dispute that adding congressional approval to nuclear launch procedures would add credibility and a democratic aspect to any US engagement in nuclear war, the logistics of such a system would be challenging.

As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a supporter of the current system, described in late October, the system is streamlined for quick decision-making.

An intercontinental ballistic missile could travel halfway around the globe and hit the US in less than a half hour.

The US would surely recognize a launch quickly because of its satellites and radar systems, but the president wouldn’t have more than 10 or so minutes to respond.

It’s hard to imagine congressional approval going through in such a small window of time. Additionally, if the president received information that, say, an attack by North Korea against South Korea were imminent, a decision whether to act on that intelligence would need to follow shortly.

Some argue that the military should have the capacity to deny the president’s order, but that would erode the civilian control of the country. Also, in fraught times like the Cuban missile crisis, the military wanted to use nuclear weapons, and the president did not.

How would Congress fit in to the nuclear launch process?

caption
How would Congress fit in to the nuclear launch process?
source
Reuters / KCNA

In situations that call for a quick decision on the use of nuclear force, it’s unclear how Congress could fit in.

“The fact is that no president, Republican or Democrat, has ever forsworn the first-strike capability,” Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October. “That has served us for 70 years.”

Nuclear force has been used twice, both times by the US on Japan near the close of World War II.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will interview retired US Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler; Peter D. Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University; and Brian McKeon, who formerly acted as the undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon.