WASHINGTON – Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, and Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, led an unusual hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday examining whether the United States’ nuclear first-strike authority should be maintained solely by the president or shared with Congress.
The hearing was part of a continuing effort by the Senate’s two highest-ranking members on the foreign affairs panel to curb the war-making authority of President Donald Trump, whom they consider mercurial and prone to rash decision-making.
“I would like to tell my constituents and the American people we have a system in place that prevents an impulsive and irrational decision to use nuclear weapons,” Cardin said. “Unfortunately, I cannot make that assurance today.”
Both Cardin and Corker have been critical of Trump’s conduct in global affairs. Cardin has previously said that Trump “lacks the temperament and judgment” to deal with the challenge posed by North Korea.
Meanwhile, Corker has been engaged in a running war of words with Trump in recent weeks, at one point referring to the White House as an “adult day care center” where the staff were focused on containing the president rather than facilitating him.
Quoting several of Trump’s recent aggressive statements towards North Korea, Cardin said that many people took the comments to mean that the president was willing to use nuclear weapons against North Korea.
“That is frightening,” Cardin said.
Cardin and Corker have led an effort in recent weeks to limit the ability of the executive branch to use military force without congressional oversight.
Following the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger last month, Corker and Cardin intensified scrutiny of the congressional authorizations that currently allow the president to use military force almost anywhere in the world against potential terrorist threats.
The debate on nuclear weapons presents another area where some in Congress are seeking to impose more muscular oversight and executive accountability.
The last formal review of nuclear command and control authority was in 1976, at the height of the Cold War, when the United States faced a nuclear-armed and capable rival in the form of the Soviet Union.
At the time, authority for a nuclear first strike was given to the president because of the realistic possibility of a ballistic missile being allowed to reach the U.S. mainland within 30 minutes, leaving no time “for a special session of the Senate,” according to Cardin.
But while the Soviet Union no longer exists, Cardin and Corker said that the nuclear protocols remained essentially unchanged and that the president had it within his power to unilaterally use the most powerful weapon in the U.S. arsenal.
“Based on my understanding of the nuclear command and control protocol, there are no checks – no checks – on the president’s authority,” Cardin said. “The system as it is set up today provides the president with the sole and ultimate authority to use nuclear weapons.”
While Cardin and Corker did not expand on their opinions of the current holder of the office, other lawmakers were more open.
“We are concerned that the president 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-Connecticut.
Opinions on the president’s ability to use nuclear weapons vary widely, with some experts saying that nuclear weapons use should be governed by greater deliberation and others arguing for flexibility in the authority given to presidents.
“The best reforms to the nuclear command-and-control system would be ones that maximized the opportunity for the human element to mitigate risks by maximizing time for deliberation and assessment,” said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.
“My bottom line is simple: in the past, Congress has played a vital role in pushing the executive branch to strengthen the nuclear command-and-control system and the time may be ripe for another close look,” said Feaver, who was on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
But according to retired Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, a former commander of United States Strategic Command, the president’s ability to order a first strike without consultation is a crucial part of nuclear deterrence strategy.
“To remain a credible deterrent tool, the U.S. nuclear force must present any would-be attacker with little confidence of success and the certainty of an assured response against his highest-value targets,” Kehler told the Senate panel.
“Despite significant differences from the Cold War, the ultimate paradox of the nuclear age is still with us—to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, the U.S. must remain prepared to use them,” Kehler said.