Chattanooga Times Free Press - - OPINION -

The Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, led by fre­quent Trump critic Sen. Bob Corker, held a hear­ing Tues­day on the pres­i­dent’s unchecked au­thor­ity to use nu­clear weapons.

Corker, a Ten­nessee Repub­li­can who is not seek­ing re-elec­tion next year, has point­edly crit­i­cized Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s sta­bil­ity and com­pe­tence — in short, his fit­ness for of­fice — and warned that the pres­i­dent seems to be lead­ing the U.S. on “the path to World War III.”

The last time ei­ther the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee or House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee specif­i­cally ex­am­ined the nu­clear au­thor­i­ties is­sue was in 1976 — 41 years ago. In that time, the law­ful con­trols and pro­to­cols con­tin­ued to make the use of nu­clear weapons sub­ject to po­lit­i­cal con­trol, Corker said.

“This is why no gen­eral, or ad­mi­ral, or de­fense sec­re­tary has the au­thor­ity to order the use of nu­clear weapons. Only the pres­i­dent — the elected po­lit­i­cal leader of the United States — has this au­thor­ity,” he said.

But there’s a bit of am­bi­gu­ity. Our Con­sti­tu­tion says only Congress can de­clare war.

So talk re­cently by both Pres­i­dent Trump and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster about “pre­ven­tive war” and sug­ges­tions that the U.S. might make a first nu­clear strike has Amer­i­cans and some mem­bers of Congress wor­ried.

The hear­ing Corker con­vened on Tues­day of­fered lit­tle so­lace.

In short, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous tes­ti­mony from le­gal, pol­icy and mil­i­tary ex­perts, as well as ques­tions and an­swers dur­ing the two-hour hear­ing, the de­ci­sion to use nu­clear weapons — first or last — is Trump’s and Trump’s alone un­der cur­rent law and pro­to­cols — many once touted by some of these very sen­a­tors who hoped to stay out of the de­bates over past wars and con­flicts.

What’s more, the mil­i­tary mem­bers and ad­vis­ers are bound by law and tra­di­tion to fol­low a pres­i­dent’s order un­less they deem it an il­le­gal order. Panel mem­bers said it is en­tirely un­clear, how­ever, who would de­ter­mine le­gal­ity and how that process would work.

What could pos­si­bly go wrong?

Corker in­sisted the hear­ing shouldn’t be taken as “spe­cific to any­one” (read here Trump), but Trump’s name — and his tweet­ing in­sults to for­eign pow­ers — came up time and time again.

Sen­a­tors in the hear­ing made it clear they don’t parse the pres­i­dent’s au­thor­ity to re­spond with nu­clear weapons if the U.S. de­tects a nu­clear launch else­where in the world. Their con­cern, they said, was what Trump or any pres­i­dent will use nu­clear force pre­emp­tively.

“We’re deal­ing with a pres­i­dent who is not will­ing to ac­cept ad­vice. … I want the pres­i­dent to act in a way that in­cludes ex­perts and not a se­ries of Twit­ter posts,” said Sen. Jeanne Sha­heen, D-N.H.

At the hear­ing’s end, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., put a pe­riod and ex­cla­ma­tion point on the “re­al­i­ties” of today’s sit­u­a­tion.

“I think that’s what is of most con­cern to the Amer­i­can peo­ple — that no one hu­man be­ing should ever have that power [to launch a pre­emp­tive nu­clear war]. From my per­spec­tive right now, given what Gen. McMaster said … there could be plans in place right now in the White House given to the pres­i­dent to launch pre­emp­tive war against North Korea us­ing Amer­i­can nu­clear weapons with­out con­sult­ing with or in­form­ing Congress what­so­ever — by ag­gre­gat­ing that power to the ex­ec­u­tive branch in clear vi­o­la­tion of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion.”

Sev­eral sen­a­tors men­tioned pend­ing leg­is­la­tion to re­assert con­gres­sional au­thor­ity, but the ex­perts urged cau­tion. Sen­a­tors seemed un­moved — es­pe­cially Markey.

“I don’t think we should be trust­ing the gen­er­als to be a check on the pres­i­dent. I don’t think we should be trust­ing a set of pro­to­cols to be pro­tect­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple from hav­ing a nu­clear war launched on their be­half. I don’t think we should be re­ly­ing on a group of in­di­vid­u­als to be re­sist­ing an il­le­gal order when they have all been hired by the pres­i­dent to have the jobs they have,” Markey said, adding:

“I don’t think the as­sur­ances I’ve re­ceived today will be sat­is­fy­ing to the Amer­i­can peo­ple. I think they can still re­al­ize that Don­ald Trump can launch nu­clear codes just as eas­ily as he uses his Twit­ter ac­count with­out a check and bal­ance that the United States Congress would be seek­ing and is con­sti­tu­tion­ally re­spon­si­ble to ex­er­cise.”

Corker said af­ter the hear­ing that he ex­pects Congress to con­tinue to re­view ques­tions about the pres­i­dent’s au­thor­ity “be­cause it is a sober­ing is­sue.”

He said he did not see a leg­isla­tive so­lu­tion today, “but that doesn’t mean that over the course of next sev­eral months one might de­velop.”

This hear­ing — billed by Corker as the first of a se­ries — was his­toric, and is a very, very big deal.

Let’s hope the com­mit­tee sticks with it.

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