Nov 14, 2017, 4:02 PM ET

Senate committee considers Trump's authority to launch nuclear weapons


For the first time in 40 years, a Senate committee reviewed the president’s singular authority to launch nuclear weapons — a move which comes amid increased tensions with North Korea.

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a frequent critic of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy approach and rhetoric. Though he said just a month ago that President Trump could be leading the U.S. “ on the path to World War III”, Corker told reporters outside the meeting this morning that the hearing was “not in any way” a rebuke of the president.

President Trump, who wrapped up a 13-day trip to Asia, previously called Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions a global threat and once warned Kim Jong Un that if North Korea threatened the U.S., America has "military solutions" "locked and loaded”. During his recent trip to the region, however, Trump dialed back the rhetoric and said he hoped North Korea would “come to the table and make a deal” and back down from its nuclear aims.

During Monday’s hearing, Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former commander of Strategic Command, emphasized that a presidential order to use a nuclear weapon must be legal. The basic legal principles of proportionality and necessity apply to the use of nuclear weapons, he said, and "if the order was considered to be illegal, the military is obligated to refuse to follow it."

“The U.S. military doesn’t blindly follow orders,” Kehler said in his opening remarks.

Democratic Senators were, nonetheless, concerned about the president’s previous remarks.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. quoted Trump’s “fire and fury” comments and threats to “totally destroy” North Korea, saying many interpret the sharp rhetoric “to mean that the president is actively considering the use of nuclear weapons in order to deal with the threat of North Korea. That is frightening. And as the chairman pointed out, based on my understanding of the nuclear command and control protocols, there are no checks – no checks – on the president’s authority.”

Witnesses at the hearing stressed that there are some checks. The system requires the president to work with military aides and give orders that must be followed down a chain of command.

The witnesses described teams of legal advisors working for the Commander of Strategic Command General John Hyten and in the office of the Secretary of Defense James Mattis who would advise the chain of command on the legality of a hypothetical order to use nuclear weapons.

Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, reminded the committee that “the system is not a button the president can accidentally lean on, against, on the desk and immediately cause nuclear missiles to fly.”

On Monday, Mattis was directly asked about the hearing and its implications.

“I’m the president’s principal adviser on the use of force,” he told reporters, confirming he is comfortable with the way the system works.

The committee’s Democrats also expressed concerns about whether the military could refuse to obey an order to launch nuclear weapons.

Cardin doubled down on his questioning of Kehler asking, “If you believe that this did not meet the legal test of proportionality, even if ordered by the president of the United States to use a nuclear first strike, you believe that because of legalities you retain that decision to disobey?”

Kehler responded “Yes, if there is an illegal order presented to military, the military is obligated to refuse to follow it.”

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., still likened the process to simple technology.

“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 can use his Twitter account without a check and balance.”

ABC News’s Ali Rogin and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

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  • kritikosman

    Good! Dolts shouldn't have the codes anyway.

  • terry bigler

    Hate can not be resolved with further hate,only love and patience will stop escalation. Having something to live for is far preferable than having something to die for. A total world war could well lead to the extinction of the human race, re we to tell upcoming generations that we were too impatient to exhaust diplomacy,as they die because our stupidity

  • terry bigler

    what would happen if a so called test goes array.the world is far too populous to play with this potential.,the bigger the weapon the larger the consequences. most are unknown at best At tht point blame for what will come about is the venue of fools

  • terry bigler

    it is my belief that the war powers act should be witheld from any president witout full consideration of ultimate outcome.anyone who thinks that there will be only a single strike is deluding themselves,we must consider the outcome for the many who have no control,but will suffer the major consequences of nuclear use. if we are attacked we have the right to defense,but prevention is key in this,there is absolutely no sensible reason to threaten because then it becomes easier to act

  • terry bigler

    this is not a power that should be held by a single individual. capricious behavior should have it's balances ,the vote of such action needs to be unanimous, to prevent the starting of a world war by mistake,there is no sane reason to expect the holder of such power not to possibly act irrationally

  • Red Hawk

    Not only nukes but the 2001 authorization to wage war needs to be revoked. Bin Laden is dead.

  • 40words

    When Bob Corker becomes a sane voice of reason, relative to the sitting presidential administration, you know there is a serious decline in this country's Executive Branch.

  • tominco

    I really like that the military won't follow illegal commands from the POTUS, but just what would make the command illegal? I am currently more concerned about nuclear war, than I have in my lifetime, only because I was 6 months old during the Cuban missile crisis and don't remember it particularly well. :)

  • steve

    Actually, US nuclear weapons can only be launched after a poll of illegal Mexicans in Tucson, approve it.

  • Forsaken Perared

    "“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 can use his Twitter account without a check and balance.”"

    actually they are very satifying and most American's understand that Trump CAN'T launch nuclear weapons as easily as he uses twitter and that in fact using a nuke has way more checks then the president sending a tweet.

  • mollydtt

    Could they please notice that they don't trust their leader on anything? No nuclear weapons launching, no tweeting insults at those that can launch nuclear weapons our way, ---no sharing intelligence with Putin?

  • Curmudgathrope

    No worries here. Trump will never go to the football. He'll just sit there and Tweet the nuclear codes all night, screaming into the mirror, (with his coverup hair disheveled) - - "The nuclear codes don't work", and we'll avert that disaster.

  • TexasVulcan

    I really hope they take away the President's authority to call a first strike. Retaliation is one thing. Launching pre-emptively? Bad idea.

  • Nicholas Ingraham

    Some of you have very short - and "righteous" - memories. During the Cuban Missile Crisis a very capable JFK and staff members made errors in judgement, made mistakes, and precipitated several near-accidents in regards to a perceived need to launch nuclear missiles against Cuba. The entire WORLD thought there was a 50/50 chance for global nuclear war.

    One American officer, Major Don Clawson, who piloted a Nato aircraft during the crisis, said afterwards:

    "We were damned lucky we didn't blow up the world – and no thanks to the political or military leadership of this country." See that bit?

    If you folks seriously think that men and women other than Trump have a "handle" on when and how to utilize INSANE nuclear missiles, you are sadly mistaken.

  • anastasiabeaverhousen

    Trump is a clear and present danger to not only the Republic but the world. He must be removed. There is already more than enough cause to Constitutionally do so.

  • KB

    Who cares, someone else has the Code for that anyhow and can fire whenever they want. The POTUS and behind him the entire Nation is just there to get blamed for it.

  • mtntrek3

    Keep him in check Gen. Mattis. Thank you very much.

  • Timehascome

    All I know is...before Mueller zeroes in on Trump...someone needs to change the Nuclear Launch Codes. If not...I hope all of us have made peace with our "All Creator" and have been well behaved...because if there's a Hell...the GOP..."Runs It!"

  • b rubble

    An immature mad man with the launch codes to a nuclear arsenal is not a good thing. And a war with this failure of a leader who can't even bring a nation together let alone take care of getting his administration together is not the person you want in charge of a war.

  • kritikosman

    The football in the hands of a nut is INSANE!

  • dan

    Personally, I’m more than a little concerned that Congress felt the need to debate Trump’s authority to launch a nuclear attack. To me, for Congress even to raise the question, means Congress questions his fitness for the office of President.

  • Roger

    The founding fathers went to extreme lengths when writing the constitution to prevent too much power from being invested in the president.

    We defeated them

  • Edup McD

    "Obligated" is not the same as having legal authority to refuse to obey an order ...
    General Mattis, as second man, is to verify the president's identity & his order - he cannot veto it ...
    There has to be legal precedence w/guidelines for officials to follow if an order to launch nuclear weapons comes into question ...

  • Colinalcarz

    Yet another reason to remove Trump from office. Fraudulently elected, incompetent, and now too dangerous.