The Buzz

Congress Hopes to Nix Trump's Nuclear First Strike Option on North Korea

A pair of nearly identical bills are making their way through the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate that would prevent the Trump Administration from launching a preemptive strike on North Korea. The House version of the bill already has bipartisan support from 60 members while the Senate version has only gathered two cosponsors thus far.

Both bills note that only Congress has the power to declare war under the Constitution of the United States. “The President is currently prohibited from initiating a war or launching a first strike without congressional approval under the United States Constitution and United States law,” the bills state. “The Constitution, in article I, section 8, grants Congress the sole power to declare war.”

The House version of the bill explicitly prohibits the executive branch from attacking North Korea without an explicit Congressional declaration of war or a specific authorization for the use of force.

“None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Defense or to any other Federal department or agency may be used to launch a military strike against North Korea or otherwise introduce the Armed Forces into hostilities in North Korea before the earlier of the date on which Congress declares war on North Korea; or the date of the enactment of an authorization,” the bill language states.

The bill makes exceptions to defend against a North Korean attack, but would remove President Donald Trump’s ability to launch a unilateral attack on Pyongyang.  The goal of the bill is to stop the White House from launching a preemptive attack where there has been no aggression that has carried out against the United States or its allies—not to remove a retaliatory strike capability.

That being said, it is not clear that the White House intends to launch a preemptive strike or some sort of nuclear first strike against North Korea despite the President’s bellicose rhetoric about ‘fire and fury.’ Indeed, testifying before Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 30, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said that the United States has not actively been discussing a nuclear first strike on North Korea. “I will just tell you that we have not been discussing this sort of thing in any kind of an actionable way,” Mattis told the committee.

However, neither Mattis nor Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would rule out that a nuclear first strike against Pyongyang was a possibility—especially if there a North Korea strike that was imminent. "The fact is that no president, Republican or Democrat, has ever forsworn the first-strike capability," Tillerson told the committee.

If the legislation makes it through Congress and ends up of the President’s desk with a veto-proof majority, Trump might be the first to have to—at least in the case of North Korea.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: U.S. Department of Energy