On North Korea, ‘We’re Fools If We Don’t Start Taking the President at his Word’

On Friday, Donald Trump’s defense secretary traveled to the tensest point of the world’s tensest conflict to deliver a message. “Our goal is not war,” James Mattis declared at the the border between South Korea and North Korea, but rather to persuade Kim Jong Un to give up his country’s rapidly expanding nuclear-weapons arsenal through hard-nosed diplomacy. Back in Washington, D.C., however, a counter-message is percolating: The president’s repeated threats of war with North Korea, and his advisers’ increasingly urgent warnings that the administration could be forced to take military action if diplomacy fails, aren’t being taken seriously enough.

The alarms may be ringing loudest in Congress, where a broader debate is building about who has the power to wage war. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will on Monday hold a hearing about the president’s authority to use military force. Corker has expressed concern that Trump, with his fiery rhetoric and disdain for diplomacy, is leading the country toward another “world war,” this time on the Korean peninsula. At a nuclear-security conference on Thursday, Democratic lawmakers championed various legislative schemes to clamp down on the president’s ability to launch the first nuclear-weapons strike in a conflict. And on Wednesday, amid a similar legislative push in the House, Chris Murphy announced that he and two other Democratic senators, Brian Schatz and Cory Booker, will be introducing legislation next week to prohibit the president from taking military action against North Korea—whether nuclear or non-nuclear—without congressional authorization. The prohibition wouldn’t apply if the United States is under attack or facing an imminent attack.

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Murphy argues that the bill is merely a “restatement of existing law”—specifically the War Powers Act of 1973—applied to the pressing case of North Korea, though he allowed that the president likely has a different interpretation of his authorities under Article II of the Constitution. (The War Powers Act establishes procedures for when the president should consult with Congress before committing U.S. forces to an armed conflict.) “By making it clear what Congress’s interpretation is of the president’s war-making ability in North Korea, I think we begin to bind his hands,” he told me.

“I think we’re fools if we don’t start taking the president at his word,” said Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been a leading Democratic voice on foreign policy since Trump’s election. “He has shown an enthusiasm for military force against North Korea in his Twitter account that is extraordinary.”

According to Murphy, it’s misguided to dismiss Trump’s belligerence as bluster or a negotiating tactic, or to believe that the experienced generals advising the president will restrain Trump from launching a potentially catastrophic preventive war against North Korea.

“Increasingly, President Trump does what he says, even against the advice of his advisers,” Murphy noted. “His advisers told him not to decertify the Iran agreement, and he did it. His advisers told him not to stop paying the insurance companies, and he did it. Maybe his advisers are telling him not to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea, but what about his history gives us confidence that he wouldn’t do that too?” (As Trump recently told reporters, “I feel stronger and tougher on [North Korea] than other people. … I listen to everybody, but ultimately my attitude is the one that matters, isn’t it? That’s the way it works.”)

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“My increased worry comes not just from Trump’s rhetoric, but also from a changed tone that some of us are hearing from military leadership,” Murphy continued. “It’s not as if someone is coming up to the Hill and sharing invasion plans with us, but it just strikes me that the military is at a different level of readiness and preparation today than they were even a few months ago.”

Murphy rejected the notion, suggested by National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and other administration officials, that the United States would be confronted with an imminent threat if North Korea obtains the capability to reliably reach the American mainland with a nuclear-tipped long-range missile (a milestone that the North could reach in a matter of months, according to CIA Director Mike Pompeo). He didn’t go into detail about what he would view as an imminent threat from North Korea, but he told me that “it clearly would require the administration to show something beyond the mere possession of a weapon that could hit the United States in order to clear the bar.”

The senator admitted that his bill isn’t likely to pass; “in a very tightly controlled Senate, where [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell doesn’t allow for any controversial legislation to come up for a vote, the chances are not great,” he said.

But the legislation is nevertheless important as a signaling device, he maintained. “I think we’ve got to start forcing a conversation between Republicans and Democrats about the potential of military action against North Korea,” Murphy said. “I really do worry many Republicans have deluded themselves into thinking that the foreign policy of this country is housed in [Defense] Secretary Mattis’s office instead of the White House. And that’s not the case. The president makes the final calls.”

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