Sen. Bob Corker. Photo courtesy the U.S. Embassy Moldova.
If Majority Leader Mitch McConnell commanded an actual majority in the Senate, his first order of business ought to be to replace Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Corker, who is retiring rather than face re-election next year, could have put millions of lives in jeopardy with a hearing questioning the authority of President Donald Trump to command the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Like a considerable number of people on both sides of the aisle (but mainly Democrats), Corker questions Trump’s fitness for the office he holds. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But there is something deeply and disturbingly wrong when an influential legislator publicly challenges the authority of the commander in chief to command all aspects of the nation’s military.
At the Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Corker weakly claimed that the concerns about unilateral presidential power were not about Trump. “This is not specific to anybody,” he said. But given Corker’s past aspersions – including a recent comment that Trump might be putting the country “on the path to World War Three” – and the very Trump-specific concerns Democrats on his committee raised at the hearing, Corker’s target was evident.
The hearing did not result in concrete action, despite some senators’ suggestion of legislation limiting the president’s nuclear authority. Corker did not support this idea. Instead, the hearing seemed to be an end in itself, raising public questions over whether the military is bound to follow the president’s orders in all circumstances.
Unchallenged civilian control of the armed forces is the bedrock distinction between a stable democracy and a government that serves only at the pleasure of its generals. The president is the head of that civilian government, and when generals stop following presidential orders, the country is experiencing a coup. Yet Air Force Gen. John Hyten, only a few days after the Senate hearing, told the Halifax International Security Forum that he would resist any presidential order he considered to be “illegal.” Hyten ought to be promptly cashiered by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force or the Joint Chiefs; he is not fit to remain on active duty.
This is not to say that a president is not bound by the law and by constitutional restrictions. These are the constraints that apply to any president, not just to one whose behavior provokes many people to take exception.
Should the competence of a president, Trump or any other, become a serious question, there is a constitutional procedure in place to address it. The 25th Amendment establishes the presidential line of succession “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office,” and establishes a procedure for transferring presidential power in case of such an inability.
Section four of the amendment, the only one that has never been invoked, lays out this process. Should the vice president and the Cabinet agree that the president is unfit to fulfill his duties, they can submit a written declaration to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives. If the president disagrees, he can submit his own document to that effect; the vice president and the Cabinet will then have four days to submit another declaration if they still believe the president is incapable of performing his duties. Then the final determination is up to Congress.
If Corker truly believes that the president’s competence is in question, he might be wise to privately consult Vice President Pence and the Cabinet, and inquire whether they see reason to invoke that constitutional authority. He could stand ready to support that action in the Senate, should they choose to proceed.
The president’s unquestioned authority to deploy every element of the nation’s military force is a major reason why this country has not been subject to a nuclear attack in the decades since the atomic bomb was first developed. Had John F. Kennedy not had the authority to command his military, the Cuban missile crisis could have ended very differently in 1962. Had Richard Nixon not possessed such authority, the 1973 war in the Middle East could have resulted in countless additional casualties. Had Ronald Reagan – whose fitness was, like Trump’s, often questioned by his critics – not been in full command, the Cold War might not have ended at the time and in the manner that it did.
The pointless performance by Corker and his committee served no purpose, other than to encourage dangerous actors from Pyongyang to Kandahar to consider testing U.S. resolve. It is Corker’s fitness, not Trump’s, that is now undermined.
While the people of Tennessee are entitled to Corker’s service for the remainder of his term, the Senate and the nation would be better off if he was removed from his influential platform. Sadly, McConnell’s majority is likely too small to make this prospect realistic. He could count on no support from Democrats, who are so blinded by their intense dislike of Trump that they cannot see greater risks to the nation and its allies. Otherwise, Corker would have attended his hearing almost entirely alone.