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Trump’s nuclear authority divides senators alarmed by his ‘volatile’ behavior

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee examines the president’s authority to order a nuclear strike amid rising tensions with North Korea. (Video: Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)

Senators trying to prevent President Trump from launching an unprovoked nuclear attack were stymied Tuesday, after a panel of experts warned them against rewriting laws to restrain a commander in chief many worry is impulsive and unpredictable enough to start a devastating international crisis.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has said Trump's threats to global rivals could put the country "on the path to World War III," began Tuesday's session warning of the inherent danger in a system where the president has "sole authority" to give launch orders there are "no way to revoke."

By the time Corker emerged from the hearing — the first to address the president’s nuclear authority in over four decades — he was at a loss for what to do next. “I do not see a legislative solution today,” Corker told reporters. “That doesn’t mean, over the course of the next several months, one might not develop, but I don’t see it today.”

Trump’s shifting posture on how to address nuclear threats has made lawmakers in both parties uneasy, particularly as the crisis over North Korea’s ambitions escalates.

Republicans and Democrats criticized Trump this summer for promising to use “fire and fury” against the regime in Pyongyang if it made any more nuclear threats against the United States; more recently, they have questioned him for taking to Twitter to call North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “short and fat.”

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“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-Conn.), one of several senators exploring how to prevent the president from launching a first nuclear strike without the permission of Congress.

Former government officials warned Tuesday that changing the law to prevent the current administration from doing something rash could dramatically backfire.

“If we were to change the decision-making process because of a distrust of this president, that would be an unfortunate decision for the next president,” said Brian McKeon, who served as acting undersecretary for policy at the Defense Department during the Obama administration.

“It has implications for the deterrent, it has implications for the extended deterrent . . . it has implications for our own military men and women,” said retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command from 2011 to 2013.

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The experts attempted to reassure senators that there are processes in place to ensure that many seasoned military and legal experts review nuclear orders before they are acted upon. ­Kehler, who led the agency responsible for nuclear launches, insisted on several occasions that the military could refuse to act on any nuclear launch order it determined to be illegal — and that there is time to push back against a president in any situation, apart from responding to an imminent attack.

That explanation did not satisfy committee Democrats, who insisted that Trump’s behavior, and what they identify as his habit of nominating and hiring administration officials who defer to his worldview, means any internal resistance “does not offer real resistance if the president absolutely insists upon his way,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

“It should be the congressional prerogative to declare nuclear war,” added Markey, who has written a bill to ban the president from being able to launch a first nuclear strike against North Korea without the authorization of Congress.

Only three other Democrats have co-sponsored it.

Nuclear launch authority is not the only area of the president's powers over which Congress has sought more influence since Trump took office. In recent months, lawmakers have insisted the president seek Congress's approval before revoking any sanctions against Russia, and momentum is building for a new authorization for use of military force (AUMF) to address the military's current and future operations against the Islamic State and other extremist groups.

Corker told reporters Tuesday his committee will also soon address the president's authority to terminate agreements with other countries — a subject with particular relevance for the future of the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has decried as "an embarrassment," refusing to certify last month that Tehran was in compliance with its terms. Corker has since been working with Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) to write Iran-related legislation that could pass with bipartisan support.

With no clear legislative path forward to assert congressional control over the president’s nuclear impulses, senators are splitting along party lines.

“There are legitimate disputes when it comes to the power of the president and the power of Congress,” said Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho).

He warned that “every single word that’s uttered in this hearing is going to be analyzed in Pyongyang,” and might lead the North Korean government to question the United States’ resolve to deter the regime’s nuclear aggression.

Democrats argued that Trump is already confusing North Korea about the United States’ intentions through his tweets.

“Doesn’t it also suggest it’s important for the commander in chief to also be cautious in how he talks about this issue, so there is not a miscalculation on the part of our aggressors who would do us harm about what the real intent here is?” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked the expert panel.

“I would be very concerned about a miscalculation based on continuing use of his Twitter account,” McKeon answered.

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