In an extraordinary US Senate hearing this week, lawmakers and military officials rounded on President Trump as being a danger to world peace due to his Commander-in-Chief powers for launching nuclear weapons.
The highlight came when the hearing was told military officers have the constitutional right to disobey the president.
This was, in effect, an open call to mutiny against the president’s authority. The Senate hearing surely counts as an outstanding moment in a year of topsy-turvy politics since Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States on November 8 last year. Yet that moment of potential sedition seemed to pass off as a rather humdrum event.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held its hearings Tuesday on the legalities surrounding the presumed executive power of the president to launch nuclear missiles. It was the first time in over 40 years since such a debate was convened on Capitol Hill, not since 1976 when Richard Nixon was about to be ousted. That reference alone speaks volumes as to what lies at stake for Trump.
Time magazine ran the headline: “Should President Trump Have the Sole Power to Launch Nuclear Missiles?”
Senator Chris Murphy (D) set the tone and purpose of the hearing by saying: “We are concerned the President of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, and has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with US security interests.”
Hinting at the severe constitutional implication, Murphy added: “So let’s just recognize the exceptional nature of this moment, of this discussion we’re having today.”
It’s hard to imagine a more demeaning way to refer to the head of state. Basically, Trump is being painted as a nutcase with his finger on a button for Armageddon. How is the president supposed to retain authority after that?
These broadsides against Trump have been rammed by political opponents, pro-Democrat media and the US intelligence community for the past year and more. Recall when Democrat rival Hillary Clinton berated Trump during a televised debate as a security danger because of his volatile temperament and would-be access to the nuclear codes.
Even members of Trump’s own Republican Party have cast him as a threat to national security. Last month, Republican Senator Bob Corker blasted his fiery rhetoric toward North Korea as “putting the US on a path to World War Three.”
Capping his first year in office, Trump returned last week from a 12-day Asian tour claiming it a major success in terms of promoting American business interests. But former intelligence chiefs soon rained on Trump’s parade by calling him a “national security threat” in high-profile media interviews. Former CIA boss John Brennan, and ex-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were referring to Trump’s conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the APEC summit in Vietnam. Both former spooks, who presumably still retain close contacts within the security-military establishment, denounced Trump for “accepting Putin’s assurances that Russia did not interfere in the US elections.” Trump, they said, was “being played by Putin” and was thereby endangering the security of the US.
These comments were echoed again this week by Brian Hook, a senior State Department official, who told a conference in Washington that “Russia is a clear and present threat to the West.” As Radio Free Europe reported: “Hook’s tough line on Moscow appears to be in contrast to stated attempts by the administration of President Donald Trump to improve relations with Russia as a means to solve global crises.”
Again, it is hard to imagine how more derogatory the slurs against a sitting president could be expressed. The tenuous “Russia-Gate” accusations of “collusion” between Trump and Russia purportedly to get him elected have marked him down as a “Kremlin stooge.” On top of that, Trump is allegedly a national security threat; and now this week, a crazy buffoon who must be wrestled from the nuclear button. One US military official giving evidence to the Senate hearings questioning Trump’s authority described him as having “God-like power to end the world.”
Bruce Blair, formerly a nuclear launch commander, said in a later media interview: “The power to destroy human civilization is unilaterally wielded by one man, who happens to be a career con artist and reality TV star known for his impulsive petulance, short temper and even shorter attention span.”
Perhaps the most significant comment came from General Robert Kehler, who commanded US Strategic Command overseeing the nation’s nuclear arsenal between 2011-2013. He told the Senate committee: “If there is an illegal order presented to the military, the military is obligated to refuse to follow it.”
Kehler said this obligation to refuse orders applies to all presidents. However, in the context of the unique and relentless media attacks on Trump over the past year, the call for disobedience takes a special significance. It is an open challenge to Trump’s ultimate authority.
Let’s be clear. Trump’s personality and behavior are suspect. He is impetuous and reckless in his rhetoric. His threats to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea are deeply disturbing. So too was his bragging at the UN General Assembly in September of “totally destroying” the Asian nation due to its nuclear weapons program. Trump’s cheap Twitter shots at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man,” and more recently as “short and fat,” are gratuitously provocative and have escalated fears that a nuclear war could break out.
Nevertheless, there seems to be an ulterior agenda of opportunism going on among the American political class which has never accepted Trump’s election as valid.
Portraying Trump as a Russian stooge, a traitor and a national security danger are all par for the course in the ongoing campaign to take him down and to overturn last year’s election result.
But here’s the intriguing thing. The Senators this week in their hearings on Trump’s nuclear powers did not contemplate amending legislation to curb those powers. Senator Bob Corker told reporters: “I don’t see it happening.”
Brian McKeon, who served as acting undersecretary for policy at the Defense Department during the Obama administration, said: “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.”
So, there you have it. US lawmakers and military officials seem to have no problem with the fact that a president could launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes against some perceived enemy state. If they did object, then they would be pushing through legislation to widen authority and consultation to restrict the use of nuclear weapons.
The real issue here should be about how any American president has been given the authority to launch a nuclear war, not just Trump.
What Trump’s opponents within the political and military-security establishment are really aiming at is to find some pretext for undermining his office, and ultimately to challenge his presidential authority on the grounds that he is unfit.
The public call this week for the US military to disobey Trump’s orders is a shot across his bow that a coup is not unthinkable.