Legal and military experts told lawmakers Tuesday the president does not have complete authority to launch a nuclear first strike when the U.S. is not faced with an imminent threat.
In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the witnesses grappled with what scenarios encompass “imminent” threats, when the president could order an attack without congressional approval and what checks exist.
“He would require lots of people cooperating with him to make the strike happen, and they would be asking the questions that would slow down that process,” said Peter Feaver, a public policy professor at Duke University.
Retired Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said if top military officials received an order they didn’t think was legal or properly vetted, they would have authority to raise questions about the order before it proceeds.
“So, we can have a little comfort even though the president has the authority, there are limits to that?” asked Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican.
“Even if time is compressed, there are circumstances I can envision where I would have said the same thing, which is ‘Wait, stop. We need to resolve these issues or we need to address this question,’ ” Mr. Kehler said.
The military experts’ testimony stood in contrast to lawmakers, who seemed fearful of President Trump having his finger on the nuclear trigger.
“We are concerned the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile … that he might order a nuclear weapon strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat. “Let’s just recognize the exceptional nature of this moment in the discussion that we are having today.”
Tuesday’s hearing was arranged by Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, who has feuded with Mr. Trump for months.
In calling the hearing, Mr. Corker said it had been decades since Congress had looked at the issue, and pointedly said it was time to take a new look.
He said the nuclear doctrines were worked out during the Cold War, when the president was given sole authority to order a nuclear strike. Once given, the order can’t be revoked, Mr. Corker said.
“To be clear, I would not support changes that would reduce our deterrence of adversaries or reassurance of our allies. But I would like to explore … the realities of this system,” he said.
Brian McKeon, former acting undersecretary of defense, said if the U.S. were to initiate a war with another nuclear state, Congress would have to authorize that action under the U.S. Constitution.
“If we are under attack from a nuclear state using nuclear weapons, that’s a different question, and the president would have the authority, under Article II, to respond,” he said.
He also said simply knowing that another country — such as North Korea — has a nuclear weapon doesn’t present an imminent threat.
Mr. McKeon and Mr. Feaver questioned the wisdom of trying to curtail the president’s control of the nuclear decision by requiring him to also get approval of someone else, such as the vice president. They said it could compromise the effectiveness of why the U.S. has nuclear weapons.
“Taking away the president’s authority as commander in chief or diluting it in some respect by requiring him to go to another constitutional officer in a formal sense, I’m not sure that is a wise course,” Mr. McKeon said.