On the campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump showed an alarming lack of understanding about U.S. nuclear weapon policy or how devastating the weapons could be if used. Now that he’s in power, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu and Senator Edward J. Markey of California and Massachussetts, respectively, introduced a bill that would prevent the U.S. President from using nuclear weapons first without a declaration of war from Congress.
The three-page bill argues that the constitution gives Congress sole authority to declare war and that any use of a nuclear weapon is essentially that because it is a major act that can kill millions of people. Furthermore, the bill states that any first use of a nuclear weapon without Congress authorizing war violates the Constitution.
The argument made, essentially, is that there’s no possible way a nuclear war could be classified as a temporary intervention that could be made without Congressional approval. It’s all or nothing.
Those of you hoping to ward off nuclear war at any cost shouldn’t get your hopes up. First of all, the bill isn’t going to pass. The Republican chambers of Congress won’t sign off on any bill that undermines a Republican president, even one as seemingly reckless with nuclear policy as Trump.
As it stands, the president pretty much has unlimited power over America’s nuclear arsenal. He’s got a person following him around at all times with the nuclear football, and if he wants to use it, he just opens it up. Part of that might be congressional deference, but a large part of the system was set up as part of the larger strategy of nuclear deterrence. Back in the Cold War, if Soviet nukes started flying, the United States would have about 15 minutes, maximum, to launch a retaliatory strike before everyone was vaporized. If you knew the Americans could retaliate quickly, and the President wouldn’t need to wait for time-consuming Congressional approval, the thinking went, maybe you’d think twice about launching a first strike yourself.
It is important to note that the U.S. is the only nation in the world to have ever used nuclear weapons against another country. Nuclear doctrine is predicated on nukes being used as a deterrent—and that deterrent is all nullified if one is launched. A nuclear war will not end with one or two nukes being fired; it ends with all nukes being launched and the human race being wiped off the face of earth as a result. (In fairness, Trump isn’t the first president to call for an ill-advised first-use of nukes. The Bush administration once called for the development of a nuclear “bunker-busting” warhead, which Congress poured cold water on.)
And that’s the problem with any sort of nuclear first strike. There’s no way, as nuclear strategy is currently envisaged, that it doesn’t end in the apocalypse. Trump, given his dangerous nuclear weapons talk, is a prime example of a President who needs constant pushback on such issues. It doesn’t help that Trump tapped former Governor Rick Perry to run the Department of Energy who by the way, had no idea that the gig would include overseeing America’s nuclear arsenal.
Rep. Lieu has legitimate concerns about Trump, but his bill is likely not to even make it out of committee. It is a legitimate bill with legitimate concerns. We’ll have to wait and see if the rest of Congress agrees.