On Tuesday, Nov. 14, senators convened a hearing to discuss the authority that the president of the United States has to levy a nuclear attack, the first hearing of this nature to take place in over four decades. The backdrop for the discussion was the increasing escalation in tensions between the United States and North Korea, which some senators fear could devolve into a nuclear war, especially given Trump's penchant for tweeting angrily about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Of particular importance at the hearing was whether Trump can start a nuclear war on his own.
"We are concerned that the president of the United States 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, a Democrat from Connecticut.
Senators at the hearing heard from a panel of experts who attempted to address concerns that the president might decide, of his own volition, to launch a nuclear attack. By and large, they discouraged rashly passing legislation that would alter the steps in place that lead to a nuclear attack, and specifically advised against giving Congress the authority to decide whether a nuclear launch should be executed.
"If we were to change the decision-making process because of a distrust of this president, that would be an unfortunate decision for the next president," said Brian McKeon, former acting undersecretary for policy at the Defense Department under President Obama.
But everyone, especially Democrats, were not convinced that the system of checks within the nuclear launch system would protect against a president who often sends out emotionally-charged comments on current events via Twitter. And there's concern that the president might replace an official who thwarts his plans with someone who would follow orders.
McKeon told senators that if a military official refused to proceed with the steps that launch a nuclear attack after being told to do so, he would be ordered to proceed, regardless. "And then, if the commander still resisted, you either get a new secretary of defense or get a new commander," McKeon said.
But not every expert on the panel agreed that an unnecessary or rash nuclear attack is likely to take place. In Foreign Policy, Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University and former special adviser on the National Security Council, outlined two different ways in which a nuclear weapon could be launched. He described the two types of scenarios as either one in which the military wakes up the president, or one in which the president wakes up the military.
In the first scenario, Feaver said that the military would have been "monitoring global events" and would believe an attack on the United States to either be in process or imminent. In that situation, a military official would essentially seek the president's permission to launch a response. The president's decision to potentially launch a nuclear attack would almost definitely be considered legal.
It is hard to identify any legislative fix that would: (a) prevent the president from making that decision in that extreme scenario that would also (b) pass Constitutional muster and that would (c) not undermine deterrence.
In the other situation — the one in which the president "wakes up" the military to initiate a nuclear attack — Feaver said, there are greater barriers to launching a missile. "The president does not need anyone else to help him fire off a tweet, but he does need many others to help him fire off a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile," Feaver said. He added that military personnel are trained to reject illegal orders, and that an order like this would be evaluated by a long series of national security officials and advisers.
Experts on the panel disagreed about the likelihood that a presidential order to launch a nuclear attack could or would be thwarted, either because of respect for authority within the system or because the president would replace a noncompliant official. The hearing ended with Sen. Bob Corker acknowledging to reporters that he didn't currently see a legislative solution. However, he told them that could always change in the next several months.
Air Force General John Hyten, head of Strategic Command, said on Saturday at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada that he would not comply with an order to launch a nuclear missile if he believed it to be illegal. "And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I‘m going to say, 'Mr. President, that’s illegal,'" Hyten reportedly said. Hyten then said he would then most likely help the president come up with a legal option.