Members of the Senate foreign affairs committee called into question a decades-old presidential authority to deploy nuclear weapons in what was the first congressional hearing on nuclear authorization in decades.
The committee led by Republican Sen. Corker has become an outspoken critic of the president, although he says Tuesday's hearing was not specific to President Trump.
The hearing was convened by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, who has broken with the President in a public and acrimonious spat that has divided the former allies.
Marco Rubio, who ran against Trump in the Republican presidential primary previous year, was among lawmakers who were quick to point out that the hearing should not be taken as a reduced US nuclear posture.
The exceedingly rare hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came after Trump threatened North Korea with military force, including his declaration that Pyongyang would be met with "fire and fury like the world has never seen".
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Retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who previously served as the commander of US Strategic Command under President Barack Obama, explained that there are layers of safeguards within the current system created to ensure any order is both legal and proportionally appropriate.
Retired Gen. Robert Kehler, who previously headed the U.S.'s command that would be in charge of the nuclear arsenal during a war, said while the US military is obligated to follow legal orders, it is not duty bound to adhere to illegal ones.
The decision to launch a nuclear attack is made by the president, relayed to the nation's top uniformed military officer, known as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before it sent down the chain of command, according to military documents.
"If we are under attack, the president would have the authority under Article 2 to defend the country and there's no distinction between his authority to use conventional or nuclear weapons in response to such an attack", McKeon told lawmakers.
"If there is an illegal order presented to the military, the military is obligated to refuse to follow it", he said. Not the Congress. Not his secretary of defense.
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He's worked his way into the mix and he's going to give me a tough test. "He's a southpaw which is another challenge for myself".
"He would require lots of people cooperating with him to make the strike happen", McKeon said. "But I would like to explore ... the realities of this system", he said.
Cardin doubled down on his questioning of Kehler asking, "If you believe that this did not meet the legal test of proportionality, even if ordered by the president of the United States to use a nuclear first strike, you believe that because of legalities you retain that decision to disobey?"
Kehler acknowledged, however, should the military reject a nuclear strike order that would result in a "very hard conversation".
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, continued to push for instituting limits on the White House's authority to launch a nuclear first strike Tuesday, contending that Congress - not the president - should have the constitutional power to declare nuclear war. "I think they can still realize that Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account".
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