WASHINGTON – A retired Air Force general urged the Senate on Tuesday to proceed with caution when looking for ways to limit the president’s authority to launch a nuclear attack.
“Conflicting signals can result in loss of confidence, confusion or paralysis in the operating forces at a critical moment,” said Robert Kehler, former commander of the United States Strategic Command.
Two other witnesses also warned that any attempts to restrict the president’s power to order nuclear strikes could have unintended consequences.
“I’m not sure that’s a wise choice,” said Brian McKeon, a former top policy official in the Defense Department.
“I would be very wary of legislative fixes,” added Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor of political science and public policy.
Concerns that a president could order a preemptive nuclear strike are on the rise in Congress as President Trump continues to trade insults with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. For the first time in more than four decades, the president’s powers to call up the nation’s nuclear arsenal were the subject of a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
“Making the decision to go to war of any sort is a heavy responsibility for our nation’s elected leaders, and the decision to use nuclear weapons is the most consequential of all,” said Sen. Sen Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held the hearing.
Corker said the time has come to examine “the realities” of the president’s authority to order a nuclear attack. But the Tennessee Republican, who warned last month that Trump’s rhetoric could be setting the nation on a path to World War III, insisted the hearing should not be seen as an attempt to specifically rein in Trump.
“This shouldn’t be taken as something that is specific to anyone,” he said.
Democrats on the committee left no doubt that Trump was their target.
“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 weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
Many Americans fear that Trump’s bombastic words could turn into “nuclear reality,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
“Under existing laws, the president of the United States can start a nuclear war – without provocation, without consultation and without warning,” he said. “It boggles the mind.”
As commander-in-chief, the president has the sole authority to order a nuclear a strike. While existing procedures call for the president to consult first with military and civilian leaders, the final decision rests with him.
Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., have each filed bills that would prohibit the president from launching a preemptive nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress.
McKeon, the former defense official, and others questioned the wisdom of such legislation. McKeon suggested Congress’ constitutional power to declare war already gives it the authority to stop the president from ordering a preemptive first strike.
Kehler suggested top military leaders also could act as an important check against the president.
While the president has the final word on ordering a nuclear strike, the military would be responsible for carrying out such an order. Military leaders could refuse to follow any order that they deemed illegal or that had not been vetted through the proper channels, Kehler said.
“The military does not blindly follow orders,” Kehler said. “That is true of nuclear orders as well.”
Instead of looking to curtail the president’s nuclear powers, Feaver suggested Congress should consider upgrading nuclear command and control technology, which he said has been neglected and has become outdated.
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.
“I do not see a legislative solution today,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that over the course of next several months one might develop.”
Markey said he remained concerned about the president’s powers to start a nuclear war.
“I don’t think the assurances I’ve received today will be satisfying to the American people,” he said. “I think they can still realize that Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account, without the checks and balances of the United States Congress.”