AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Over the past few months, the country has been in a foul sort of trance. Among people who work in politics, Republicans as well as Democrats, it is conventional wisdom that President Donald Trump is staggeringly ill-informed, erratic, reckless and dishonest. (He also might be compromised by a hostile foreign power.) But it’s also conventional wisdom that with few exceptions, Republicans in Congress are not going to stand up to him. America’s nuclear arsenal is in the hands of a senescent Twitter troll, but those with political power have refused to treat this fact as a national emergency. Thus, even though a majority of Americans consider the president unfit for office, a fatalistic sense of stasis has set in.
Credit U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., for momentarily snapping us out of it. On Sunday evening, after a Twitter feud with Trump, Corker gave an interview to The New York Times in which he said publicly what Republican officeholders usually say only privately. Trump, Corker told the reporters Jonathan Martin and Mark Landler, is treating the presidency like “a reality show” and could be setting the nation “on the path to World War III.” Corker has previously said that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and chief of staff John Kelly “help separate our country from chaos.” On Sunday, he identified the agent of that chaos. “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him,” Corker said of Trump.
Now that Corker has done the country the immense favor of acknowledging the obvious, the key question is: What’s next? Corker, despite his culpability in helping to legitimate Trump during the presidential campaign and despite waiting until he’d announced his retirement to speak out, has behaved more patriotically than most of his quietly complicit colleagues. But as Trump continues to tweet threats at a war-ready North Korea, it is not enough to simply hope that the president’s minders can stop him from blowing up the world.
Corker, after all, is not a passive spectator; he’s the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The Congress holds the ultimate power for war,” Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, told me. “Though they have more or less delegated that power away to the executive branch, they can take it back.”
They could start with a pair of bills introduced by Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Ted Lieu of California, both Democrats, prohibiting the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war. So far, the only Republican to sign on in either chamber is Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina. But given how little faith Senate Republicans have in Trump’s judgment, they have a duty to take up this legislation or develop an alternative. “Increasingly, senators and members of Congress are going to come to the conclusion that there has to be a firewall that is erected so that a single human being cannot impulsively launch nuclear weapons,” Markey told me.
Despite its overall record of weakness, Congress has acted on one occasion to curb Trump’s worst foreign policy impulses. In July, Republicans voted overwhelmingly for a bipartisan bill that, among other things, limited Trump’s ability to unilaterally lift sanctions on Russia. Tying Trump’s hands on nuclear weapons would be a far more aggressive step, but it’s one that members of Congress who are mindful of this moment’s profound peril should take.
Of course, “should” is the key word here. There are plenty of things that Republicans should do about Trump, including impeaching him for violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution. We’ve grown so inured to Republican politicians’ persistent refusal to put the welfare of the country above their re-election prospects and lust for tax cuts that complaining about it feels banal and naïve.
But Corker’s expression of alarm is a reminder that we are teetering on the cusp of horror. He made it clear that Trump’s tweeted provocations of North Korea are impulsive rather than strategic. “A lot of people think that there is some kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ act underway, but that’s just not true,” he said. We need to take seriously the possibility that Trump might cavalierly start a war that could kill millions of people. It would be a human calamity of inconceivable, history-bending scale, and it would leave America as a hated global pariah. Now that Corker has admitted that Trump cannot be trusted with the power he holds, he and other Republicans have no excuse not to try to take that power away.
Taylor, of the Niskanen Center, is in frequent contact with anti-Trump Republicans, and he senses a growing sense of urgency among them. “Having an unstable narcissist who is ignorant of politics, policy and foreign affairs with the nuclear codes has probably turned them white as a sheet,” he said. “There is some degree of serious responsibility that they fully realize that they hold.” If so, now would be a good time to show it.