The Senate Armed Services Committee openly questioned the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons for the first time in over four decades Tuesday.
During the hearing, several senators expressed serious concerns about President Donald Trump’s absolute authority over the country’s nuclear arsenal.
“The president of the United States is so unstable, 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,” Democratic Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy said during the hearing.
“No one human being should have the power to unilaterally unleash the most destructive forces ever devised by humankind,” argued Democratic Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. “I fear that in the age of Trump, the cooler heads and strategic doctrine that we once relied upon as our last best hope against the unthinkable seem less reassuring than ever,” he added.
As certain congressional leaders voiced their concerns about Trump, several panelists brought in to testify on procedure and practice argued against efforts to limit the president’s power, asserting that it could negatively impact America’s deterrence capabilities.
“Taking away the president’s authority as commander in chief or diluting it in some respect,” said Brian P. McKeon, former principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy under the Obama administration. “I’m not sure that’s a wise course.”
A legislative “fix” could undermine nuclear deterrence, Dr. Peter D. Feaver, professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University, explained to the senators present for the discussion.
Trump, like his predecessors “retains constitutional authority to order military action,” Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former head of U.S. Strategic Command, introduced, adding that commanders have the power and the obligation to object to an illegal order. He explained that the legal principles of military necessity, distinction, and proportionality which apply to other military actions also apply to nuclear weapons.
In the event of an imminent attack, the president would make the decision, and the order would likely be streamlined. Were the president to order an unprovoked nuclear attack, the order would probably be met with some pushback from commanders accompanied by legal advisers. At that point, the president could remove officials and commanding officers, but such actions would potentially trigger a “constitutional crisis.”
McKeon suggested that the president would need to secure congressional approval to launch an unprovoked nuclear strike on another country. There is, however, a certain degree of “strategic ambiguity” with regard to which circumstances would allow the use of a nuclear weapon against an adversary.
Kehler stressed that this calculated ambiguity works to America’s advantage, stating that it “enhances our deterrence to have some doubt in the mind of an adversary about under what conditions we would use a nuclear weapon.”
As to the president’s basic authority to use nuclear weapons to defend the U.S., Feaver explained that when the American people voted for the president, they gave him this power. “The electorate on election day chose him to make that decision,” he explained.
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