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Presidential authority regarding the ordering of nuclear strikes to be addressed

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OKLAHOMA CITY- For the first time since 1976, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the President’s absolute authority to use nuclear weapons and the process for executing that authority, a move that many say is proof that many in government do not trust President Donald Trump with nuclear weapons.

According to the Congressional Research Service, this hearing will be the first time that either the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or the House Foreign Affairs Committee specifically examined the nuclear authority issue since the 1970s, though the issue of one person having the final say with unchecked authority has always been a concern

Bruce Blair, research scholar with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University and co-founder of Global Zero, said the timing of the hearing hints at congressional doubts that Trump should have the ability to solely determine the use of nuclear weapons.

“Senator (Bob) Corker (R-Tenn.) has expressed concern about President Trump’s stability and fitness to have unchecked authority to order the use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause,” Blair told Red Dirt Report Tuesday. “Corker’s doubts are widely shared among Republican and Democratic legislators alike, some of whom have advanced bills that would constrain a demented president from starting a nuclear conflagration. So, Corker is reflecting the mood of the Hill and a large swath of the public.”

Corker has been outspoken about his concerns that Trump or any one person has the ability to start a nuclear attack without explanation, saying last month that President Trump could be leading the world into World War III, and spoke Tuesday about how the time was right for Congress to review the realities of the president’s authority to order an attack of such scale.

“To be clear, I would not support changes that could reduce our deterrence of adversaries or reassurance of allies,” Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during the opening of the hearing. “Making a 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.”

Although Corker said the hearing wasn’t directed to President Trump or “any one person” directly, others say the Congressional hearing is proof that America is losing trust in its president.

Ahead of the hearing, Lillyanne Daigle, chief spokesperson for Beyond the Bomb, a new grassroots movement to prevent nuclear war, said Tuesday’s hearing shows that anxiety is spreading among members of Congress as well.

“As the President flails from one disaster to the next, Americans are increasingly alarmed about Trump’s absolute authority to use nuclear weapons. The fact that a Republican senator has initiated this process tells you everything you need to know about how serious and pervasive these concerns are,” she said in a statement Tuesday.

“Donald Trump is a walking, talking case for dismantling a system that relies so completely on the judgment, temperament and emotional state of one person. It is profoundly undemocratic and dangerous. That the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is finally looking into this is a step in the right direction, but it can’t stop with an inquiry. This president has taken us closer to the brink of nuclear war than we have been in generations, and it’s time for Congress to urgently intervene.

“There are already practical solutions on the table, and more are in the works. A good place to start is the Markey-Lieu bill, which would force Trump to seek a Congressional declaration of war before launching a nuclear first strike. That would buy us some time to pursue other critical reforms that overturn the unjust, undemocratic U.S. nuclear system -- like enacting a strict policy of no-first-use -- and walk us back from the brink."

Local Beyond the Bomb activists said they would attend the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in silent protest to demand that senators take concrete steps to rein in Trump’s unilateral power over the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Activists will be wearing safety masks bearing messages and shirts with targets on them to highlight the dangers of Trump’s finger on the button.


In an essay written and published in Politico prior to Trump’s victory, Blair considered the consequences of having a man with Trump’s temperament ability to deal with the pressure and time constraints related to ordering a nuclear strike.

As it stands, a U.S. President has are no restraints that can prevent him or her from ordering a nuclear attack.

If a president gives the command, the commanders and military has no legal or procedural grounds to disobey, no matter how inappropriate the command may seem. As long as the president can prove his or her true identity, then the order to strike must be obeyed as long as the president “believes” it is to protect and defend the nation from an actual or imminent attack.

“How would a President Trump behave under such duress, informed of the attack and the imminent destruction of the nation’s capital and himself? He would have only a few minutes to consider the reliability of the attack report and decide whether and how to retaliate. If the attack is real, and he hesitates, a president will likely be killed and the chain of command decapitated, perhaps permanently,” Blair wrote.

“What would it mean to have Trump’s fingers on the nuclear button? We don't really know, but we do know this: In the atomic age, when decisions must be made very quickly, the presidency has evolved into something akin to a nuclear monarchy. With a single phone call, the commander in chief has virtually unlimited power to rain down nuclear weapons on any adversarial regime and country at any time.”

While many think that having the executive power to launch a nuclear attack comes with checks and balances and congressional consideration, Blair said it does not.

“There is no advice and consent by the Senate. There is no second-guessing by the Supreme Court. Even ordering the use of torture… imposes more legal constraints on a president than ordering a nuclear attack.”

Blair said Tuesday that Trump’s character, temperament and impulsiveness drives home the need for new checks on presidential nuclear authority.

As part of a nuclear launch study group at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute, Blair said a set of recommendations will be released soon. Those recommendations include adding the Secretary of Defense and the Attorney General to the chain of nuclear command.

“Before an order from the President to launch first is carried out, the Defense Secretary would have to confirm that the order came from the President and that the Attorney General agrees that it is justified self-defense,” Blair said. “If the President railroaded the nuclear forces into first use anyway, his action would be impeachable.”

Other proposals Blair said would be appropriate include the Liu-Markey bill that requires Congress to declare war and authorize the use of nuclear weapons before the President could order first use. Other legislation introduced prohibits the U.S. to initiate the use of nuclear weapons first.

“Trump’s interactions with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and other world leaders only reinforce concern that he is a ‘loose cannon’ with a short fuse whose brinksmanship runs increasing risk of sparking conflict that escalates to nuclear war,” Blair said.

Derek Johnson, executive director for Global Zero, reiterated Blair’s comments.

“Congress could go a step further and adopt legislation banning the first use of nuclear weapons in all circumstances, which would insulate the United States and the rest of the world from false warnings, poor judgment, fits of pique and accidental nuclear war,” Johnson said in an email to Red Dirt Report.

“We could also retire and eliminate altogether the types of weapons, like land-based missiles, that are geared only for a quick-launch, first-strike attack — and save hundreds of billions of dollars in avoided ‘modernization’ costs while we’re at it. Any of these steps would make us safer and more secure. All of them have the backing of credible nuclear security experts and should be seriously taken up by Congress.

“Whatever your views on Donald Trump, the fact is the vast nuclear authority bestowed on any American president is above the pay grade of every human being on the planet. No one is fit to wield this power. It’s time we come to grips with that and push through serious reforms, before our worst fears are realized.”


Today’s hearing isn’t the first time a President’s ability to have ultimate control and decision over nuclear strikes have come into play. Top advisors to President Richard Nixon took steps to limit his ability to make a decision to launch in light of the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency.

At the time, then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told the Pentagon war room to contact him if Nixon did order a nuclear strike due to Nixon’s alleged mental instability and heavy drinking and depression at the time of the Watergate scandal.

Blair said the hearing may result in further investigation into the President’s nuclear authority.

“(The hearing) should explore ways to constrain this and any future president from initiating the use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause, and it should expose the deep flaws in the current procedures and timelines for nuclear decision making when a nuclear missile attack against the U.S. or our allies appears to be underway,” Blair said.

“The current protocol allows only about six minutes for the President to decide. This runs a real risk of hastily ordering retaliation based on mistaken information that may be corrupted by a cyberattack.”

Blair added that he wasn’t hopeful that a Republican Congress would support Presidential constraints on nuclear strike decision-making, but that the hearing was a step in changing protocols.

In all fairness, Trump himself has long stated that nuclear war would be a global tragedy that he is against.

In April 2016, he said “I don’t want to rule out anything. I will be the last to use nuclear weapons. It’s a horror to use nuclear weapons. … I will be the last to use it, I will not be a happy trigger like some people might think. I will be the last, but I will never ever rule it out,” he said.

That same month, Trump issued a statement saying that he would love to see a “nuclear-free world.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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