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U.S. nuclear commander would balk at any 'illegal' order

It's been decades since the nuclear era began, but it wasn't until recently that officials started a debate in earnest over limiting a president's authority.
A U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber flies over Osan Air Base, Sept. 13, 2016, in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. (Photo by Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
A U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber flies over Osan Air Base, Sept. 13, 2016, in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. 

For quite a while, the topics of Donald Trump and nuclear policy have been an area of concern. As a Republican presidential candidate, he didn't seem to have any idea what the nuclear triad was; he was equally baffled by the first-use policy; and didn't seem to understand what "proliferation" meant.

During the presidential transition process, Trump made matters worse, tweeting senselessly about expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal and welcoming a new international "arms race."

Once in the Oval Office, Trump struggled some more, flunking the basics of nuclear modernization and missile defense, even while threatening to rain "fire and fury" on nuclear-armed North Korea.

But there's a related concern that goes well beyond the president's ignorance: what if Trump decided he actually wanted to use the world's most dangerous weapon? There was some notable commentary on the subject over the weekend.

The top U.S. nuclear commander said Saturday he would push back against President Trump if he ordered a nuclear launch the general believed to be "illegal," saying he would hope to find another solution.Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Saturday that he has given a lot of thought to what he would say if Mr. Trump ordered a strike he considered unlawful.

Hyten told the audience that he and his colleagues "think about these things a lot," adding, "When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?"

Hyten walked through the scenario: "I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do. And if it's illegal, guess what's going to happen? I'm going to say, 'Mr. President, that's illegal.' And guess what he's going to do? He's going to say, 'What would be legal?' And we'll come up with options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that's the way it works. It's not that complicated."

A CBS News report added that the commander "has been trained every year for decades in the law of armed conflict, which takes into account specific factors to determine legality -- necessity, distinction, proportionality, unnecessary suffering and more. Running through scenarios of how to react in the event of an illegal order is standard practice, he said."

All of this comes just a week after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a formal hearing on Capitol Hill, questioning whether it's time for new legal restrictions, limiting the unilateral power of the president to launch nuclear strikes. It was the first such hearing in more than four decades.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the line of inquiry is important because we currently have a president who "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 step with U.S. national security interests."

What's more, the New York Times noted that Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have introduced legislation "to bar the president from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. A president would, of course, still have the power to retaliate if America was attacked, but their bill could help restrain a trigger-happy president."

There are, not surprisingly, plenty of questions and concerns surrounding such measures, but it's worth pausing from time to time to appreciate how extraordinary the circumstances are. It's been several decades since the nuclear era began, but it wasn't until quite recently that U.S. officials initiated a debate in earnest over limiting a president's authority in ordering a nuclear strike.

And though it makes some in the political world uncomfortable, the impetus for this conversation is the widespread belief that the United States is currently being led by a man whose stability and relationship with reality is, at a minimum, been called into question.