The feud between President Trump and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has the potential to fuel a Constitutional power struggle.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair presided over a hearing on Tuesday to explore the President’s legal authority to launch nuclear weapons. Corker said he wanted to explore “the realities of our system.”
Democrats thanked Corker for holding the hearing. A number of them noted concerns about President Trump’s tempestuous behavior.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) invoked worries about Trump’s mental stability, for example. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) cited the president’s argumentative posts on Twitter.
Both issues have come into prominence, in recent months, as Trump has threatened to use maximum force against North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un. Trump often refers to Kim as “Rocket Man,” in derisive, aggressive posts on social media.
“Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!” Trump tweeted in September.
During his speech at the UN General Assembly that month, Trump also threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” in response to its recent nuclear and missile tests. The month before, Trump had promised that North Korean threats against the US “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Corker himself was subject to Trump’s anger and his broadsides on Twitter, after the Senator announced in October that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election next year.
“Senator Bob Corker ‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election in Tennessee. I said ‘NO’ and he dropped out,” Trump tweeted immediately after Corker’s announcement. Corker disputed this claim, firing back: “the White House has become an adult day care center.”
“Someone obviously missed their shift this morning,” the Senator tweeted. Later that day, Corker said he was worried Trump could put the United States “on the path to World War III.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, there wasn’t support for legislative reform from the witnesses—an academic and two ex-military officials. They said that there are already general constraints on Constitutional war powers that restrict unilateral action. Military officers are also capable of refusing illegal orders, they said.
But in the case of North Korea, there is a crucial legal safeguard lacking. A Congressional declaration of war might not be necessary for the President to launch broad military actions against Pyongyang.
“We are still under armed hostilities, just in an armistice, from the First Korean War,” said Prof. Peter Weaver, a Duke University political scientist. “And there have been multiple UN Security Council Resolutions all of which provide some legal basis for US action.”
In August, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that the Trump administration is considering a “preventive war” against North Korea.
“If they have nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States. It’s intolerable from the president’s perspective,” McMaster said.
As Corker noted Tuesday, a Congressional committee last publicly examined the President’s authority to launch nukes in 1976, during the fallout after Watergate.
In August 1974, in the waning days of the Nixon administration, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger ordered for any nuclear launch commands to be cleared by his office or by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
“Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon,” Politico noted in August.
Nixon also once reportedly drunkenly ordered “a tactical nuclear strike” in 1969, after the North Korean government shot down an American spy plane.
“The Joint Chiefs were alerted and asked to recommend targets, but Kissinger got on the phone to them,” CIA Vietnam specialist George Carver reportedly said, according to a book published 17 years ago. “They agreed not to do anything until Nixon sobered up in the morning,” Carver added.