Could the United States launch a nuclear attack on North Korea, even before it is attacked? And could President Donald Trump order such an attack on his own?
These once improbable questions have been vigorously discussed in the capital since Trump this summer raised the prospect of raining “fire and fury” on North Korea in response to the isolated country’s military threats, and then weeks later claimed that North Korea faced “total destruction” if the United States felt it had to defend itself against an attack.
His defense secretary, James Mattis, affirmed in testimony before the Sen. Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 30 that a first strike on North Korea using U.S. nuclear arms is possible “if we saw they were preparing” an imminent, direct attack on the United States. Mattis quickly added, however, that nonnuclear weapons were available for use if needed, and said a nuclear strike was not being discussed by senior officials “in any kind of actionable way.”
But the prospect of nuclear combat on the orders of a president whom the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has dismissed as an “adult day care” resident, has stirred controversy and helped galvanize proposals by a few lawmakers to lengthen the “chain of command” that would lead to a nuclear weapons launch — either against North Korea or another nation.
Under a bill introduced by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Congress would be inserted explicitly into that chain, given a chance to say yea or nay to any first use of nuclear weapons.
The measure’s political prospects are dim. Congress as a whole has long tread lightly in this area, and a Nov. 3 report by the Congressional Research Service concluded “there is no clear answer on whether legislation limiting the President’s power to employ those nuclear weapons that are already in the military arsenal would violate separation of powers principles.”
The issue of “who gets to decide” nonetheless took center stage at a Tuesday hearing called by Corker to explore “the realities of this system” by which the president can singly order a nuclear detonation – a chain of command last examined by that committee 41 years ago. At the hearing Tuesday, three experts — none of whom is currently in the government — testified that Trump’s ability to decide the issue on his own is limited but also said that additional limits may not be sensible.
A president, they said, does not have authority to launch nuclear weapons without congressional approval unless the United States is already under attack or quite certainly about to be. “To be sure, the President possesses the constitutional authority to defend the country against sudden attack, or to pre-empt an imminent attack,” said Brian McKeon, an acting undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration. “But Article II does not give him carte blanche to take the country to war.”