Editorials

‘Adult day care’ isn’t enough. We need a law to keep Trump’s hands off nuclear button

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, is welcomed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb., on Sept. 14 by Gen. John E. Hyten, the head of Strategic Command, who would be in command of nuclear forces if President Donald Trump orders a strike on North Korea.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, is welcomed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb., on Sept. 14 by Gen. John E. Hyten, the head of Strategic Command, who would be in command of nuclear forces if President Donald Trump orders a strike on North Korea. AP

When Rep. Ted Lieu of California introduced his bill during the first week of the Trump presidency, it seemed mostly symbolic – a measure to require the president to seek congressional permission for a nuclear first strike.

Now, the issue is becoming more real and more urgent by the day as President Donald Trump keeps lobbing warmongering statements and tweets about North Korea – and as more doubts are raised about his fitness to be our commander in chief.

Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, publicly put those concerns front and center by saying that he worries that Trump’s reckless and impulsive threats could put America “on the path to World War III.”

That warning should terrify all Americans, whatever your politics. Many are already afraid. In a poll released Wednesday, two-thirds said that Trump’s war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – who is even more unhinged than Trump – is only making the situation worse. North Korea’s foreign minister said Wednesday that Trump has “lit the wick of war.”

Corker is saying out loud what other Republicans in Congress have whispered privately and what foreign policy analysts have been fretting about – that Trump could lash out against Kim and North Korea without fully understanding the risks, most notably the tens of thousands of casualties in South Korea, civilian as well as military. Unfortunately, Trump has undercut diplomatic efforts by his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to defuse the crisis without U.S. military action.

While that response is likely to come with conventional weapons, it’s not inconceivable that Trump would hit the nuclear button.

To be clear, the measure would not prevent Trump – or any president – from retaliating against a nuclear attack on the U.S. or its allies from North Korea, or any other adversary. Rather, it would prohibit the president from ordering a first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.

Introduced in the House on Jan. 24 by Lieu, a Torrance Democrat, and in the Senate by Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the measure was an early sign that Lieu would be an outspoken and persistent Trump foe. He appears regularly on cable TV and is one of the most prolific Trump critics on Twitter, on the Russia investigation as well as North Korea.

“I am opposed to war as the first option,” Lieu said Tuesday on CNN. “There are no good military options.”

The bill (H.R. 669) has 58 co-sponsors in the House, including 14 Democrats from California and one Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina. The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 (S. 200) has nine co-sponsors in the Senate, including Dianne Feinstein of California. Sen. Kamala Harris is studying the bill, her office says.

Over the years, Congress has allowed the presidency to take many of its war-making powers. Such a momentous decision as a first strike should come after a sober debate by our elected representatives, not because of an angry tantrum by someone as inexperienced and unstable as Trump.

Even some fellow Republicans and top aides are reportedly relying on the former and current generals in Trump’s inner circle to stop him from going off a cliff – and taking the nation with him.

But the responsible people in what Corker scathingly called an “adult day care center” may not be enough to keep Trump in check. On nuclear weapons, it takes a law as well.

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