As Donald Trump transforms the presidency into a reality show, his former conservative allies are becoming his adversaries, and waking up to the sickening reality that the U.S. government is headed by a clown who could turn into one of history’s greatest war criminals in the four minutes it would take him to order a nuclear attack.
But will Trump’s critics do more than talk?
When Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the New York Times that the President’s behavior could set America “on the path to World War III,” Trump responded with a tweetstorm. Corker called the White House an “adult day care center" and the story quickly descended into politics as usual.
Here are the latest dispatches on our national emergency. The Times reports that Trump called Corker "Liddle Bob" because the senator is five feet, seven inches tall. The Hill says Republican strategists are concerned that Trump’s feud with Corker endangers the party’s plans to pass tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Trump “needs to stop. But I wish Bob would stop, too. Just stop,” Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa told Politico. “We’ve got so many other things that we need to be focusing on right now."
As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait writes, “Corker is so concerned that Donald Trump’s erratic behavior could lead to a war causing millions of deaths that he has spoken out about the issue publicly. Corker’s fellow Republicans are extremely upset. At Corker, not Trump.”
The question is not whether Republicans who privately share Corker’s concerns about will speak up — they won’t. As Heather Digby Parton and Maddow Blog note, they are “cowards" who have "learned the wrong lessons."
The question is whether Corker is going to put his money where his mouth is. The world does not need another Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has pulled off the unimpressive trick of combining the personalities of Trump critic and Trump toady into one body.
Corker, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, actually has some power to check Trump’s antics over the next year and a half. Here is what he could and should do.
1. Hold hearings on North Korea.
The fact that our nuclear command and control system is in the hands of a man like Donald Trump is, in the words of author Eric Schlosser, “something out of science fiction." Corker should hold hearings to educate the public about the dangerous situation we face.
There is a precedent. Fifty years ago, Sen. J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held a series of nationally televised "educational" hearings on the Vietnam War, which helped galvanize public opinion against a criminally foolish war. Like Corker, Fulbright had to break with a president of his own party in order to serve his country.
The public and the Congress, distracted by hurricanes and mass murder, need to understand that the North Korea conflict has escalated in the past month. After Trump said any North Korean threats would be met with “fire and fury,” North Korea continued to issue threats, and Trump responded, not with fire and fury, but with insults (“Rocket Man”), perhaps giving Kim Jong-un the impression the president is bluffing.
At the same time, the military posture of both sides is getting more aggressive.
In September, the United States sent B1 bombers and F-15C Eagle fighter planes further north along the coast of North Korea than ever before. North Korea responding by asserting its right to shoot down U.S. warplanes. This week, U.S. and South Korean forces sought to demonstrate U.S. resolve by simulating attacks on North Korean targets.
What will Trump do if the North Koreans shoot down an American plane? Trump administration officials need to explain what they are doing and why — and in person, not in 140 characters.
2. Support legislation to curb Trump’s nuclear authority.
As Newsweek’s Jeff Stein notes, "No one can stop Trump from waging nuclear war, not even his generals."
If Corker is serious about getting the country off the path to World War III, he should hold hearings on the bill introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.
“Neither President Trump, nor any other president, should be allowed to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack,” Markey said, when he introduced the bill in January. “By restricting the first use of nuclear weapons, this legislation enshrines that simple principle into law.”
Markey’s bill is no panacea, but Corker’s willingness to consider it would put Trump on notice that Congress is serious about curbing his powers.
3. Protect the Iran nuclear agreement.
Now that Trump has declared he will abandon the international agreement that prevents the Islamic Republic from building nuclear weapons for at least a decade, Congress will have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose pre-2015 sanctions, or stick with the agreement. Republicans will be looking to Corker for guidance.
Corker should publicly support Trump administration officials who have repeatedly said the agreement advances U.S. interests and that Iran is compliance.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former commander in the Middle East, told the Senate earlier this month that Iran was in compliance with the deal. Before that, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the Senate that the agreement was working, and is delaying any eventual Iranian development of nuclear arms.
Corker, a measured critic of the deal in 2015, is now uniquely well-positioned to enforce the point that abandoning the Iran deal will undermine any effort to negotiate with North Korea by demonstrating that the U.S. government doesn’t abide by its diplomatic commitments.
After a recent visit to North Korea, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof declared, “I’ve been covering North Korea on and off since the 1980s, and this five-day trip has left me more alarmed than ever about the risks of a catastrophic confrontation.”
Corker has said he shares that alarm. Now is the time to do something about it before it's too late.