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Senators scrutinize Trump’s power to launch nuclear strike

Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., left, and and Ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., right, ask a question to General C. Robert Kehler, center, USAF (Ret.) Former Commander United States Strategic Command, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on North Korea on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press
Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., left, and and Senator Ben Cardin, D-Md., spoke with General C. Robert Kehler, center, USAF (Ret.), former commander of the United States Strategic Command, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on North Korea on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — Jitters over President Trump’s proposals to beef up America’s atomic arsenal and his repeated Twitter threats about attacking North Korea have spread to Congress, where some lawmakers Tuesday discussed curbing presidential power to launch a first strike with nuclear weapons.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on legislation that would restrict a president’s ability to launch a preemptive nuclear strike without a declaration of war from Congress. The bill was first introduced by Senator Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, in September 2016, when Trump was only the Republican nominee and had not yet threatened “fire and fury” against a nuclear North Korea.

“Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account, without the check and balance of the United States Congress,” Markey warned at the hearing.

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After months of silence about a hearing on the bill, Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the committee and an outspoken Trump critic, granted it. The hearing came one month after Corker told The New York Times that Trump’s threats toward other countries could set the United States “on the path toward World War III.”

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A president’s order to initiate a nuclear strike begins with opening a black briefcase, containing the country’s nuclear plans, that is kept by a military aide who is near the president at all times. The order then travels down a chain of military command.

“The president has the sole authority to give that order, whether we are responding to a nuclear attack or not . . . There is no way to revoke it,” Corker said, referring to the president’s directive. The Tennessee senator told reporters after the hearing that he does not see a legislative solution now but is open to further discussion, according to media reports.

For months, Trump has made personal jabs at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, derisively calling him “rocket man” on and off Twitter. In September, Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric by threatening to “totally destroy” the country in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Two former military officials invited to testify at the hearing tried to reassure the senators by citing a system of trusted legal advisers and level-headed generals, who they said would be ready to question a president’s decision-making if necessary.

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“If there is an illegal order presented to the military, the military is obligated to refuse to follow it,” said retired General C. Robert Kehler, former commander of the US Strategic Command.

What was less clear from their testimony, however, was whether those checks would apply when the country was presented with an imminent threat from a foreign country, said Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, in a phone interview.

Last month, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the committee that based on the president’s constitutional authority, he would only be able to employ military force in North Korea in the face of an imminent threat.

Senators on the committee were divided in whether they saw the hearing as a practical step in the legislative process, or simply an academic exercise.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, tried to highlight what he views as a grave situation in the Oval Office.

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“We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of the step with US national security interests,” Murphy said.

But Republican Senator Marco Rubio urged his colleagues to “tread lightly,” warning that if lawmakers questioned the system, military officers could feel emboldened to defy the president’s commands.

Julia Jacobs can be reached at julia.jacobs@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliarebeccaj.