Congressman Ted Lieu makes a play to keep the nuclear football out of Trump’s hands

By Joe Piasecki

On Twitter and Capitol Hill, Rep. Ted Lieu has become one of President Trump’s most vocal congressional critics
Photo by Ted Soqui

Technically speaking, nuclear war is little more than a midnight covfefe away.

It takes 218 votes in the House of Representatives and 51 votes in the Senate to pass health care or immigration law, but whether to authorize a globally catastrophic nuclear first strike is the decision of just one man: President Donald Trump. And as tensions escalate between Trump and North Korean “rocket man” Kim Jong-un, threats of nuclear annihilation have become White House diplomatic posture — a terrifying new normal.

One person having the power to take America into nuclear war is definitely not what Founding Fathers meticulous about checks on executive power would have intended, argues Rep. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance). The former active duty U.S. Air Force officer who represents Westside and South Bay neighborhoods is not only taking the threat of nuclear conflict seriously, he’s trying to put a legislative safety lock on the button. The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, co-introduced by Lieu and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), would require a majority of Congress to authorize use of force before the military could execute a presidential order for a nuclear first strike.

Lieu, who has gained national notoriety as Trump’s Twitter Antagonist-in-Chief, tells The Argonaut this legislation isn’t a meme, and it’s not about playing politics — we’re living dangerously.

The Argonaut: How worried should we be that a nuclear first strike by the White House could actually happen?

Rep. Ted Lieu: We should be worried. The president has made very provocative statements in his speeches as well as in his tweets. When the president uses words like “fire and fury” against North Korea, or that he can “totally destroy” North Korea, those words should worry us. Particularly given how easy it is to launch nuclear weapons in the United States.

How easy is it?

It takes the approval of the National Command Authority, which seems impressive until you read it. It’s two people: the president and his political appointee, the secretary of defense. And under law the secretary of defense can’t even oppose the order; he just executes it. It’s a ministerial action. The president gives the order, the secretary of defense executes the order, the military gets the order, they run it down the chain of command, missiles launch. That easy. The judiciary is not involved. The legislature is not involved. Nobody else at the White House is involved. That’s why Sen. Markey and I introduced this legislation.

How will a legislative hurdle stop someone who has shown total disregard for traditional governing processes and, as many would say, the law?

If this bill becomes law, the president could not do a nuclear first strike without first getting congressional approval. Keep in mind our military is trained to disobey illegal orders. So if military commanders knew Congress didn’t give approval, then they would also know they shouldn’t follow any such order.

What’s been the response to this bill, on both sides of the aisle?

Every time the president says or does something crazy, we get more and more support. So I’m pleased it’s now a bipartisan bill to restrict the first use of nuclear weapons. We also have a lot of support from organizations that have worked on nuclear weapons issues, like Ploughshares, Global Zero, Council for a Livable World. And we’re getting a lot of grassroots support as people see the president’s reckless and provocative comments. They want to know what they can do about it.

So other members of Congress take seriously the prospect of war, even nuclear war, with North Korea?

Absolutely. Especially with this president.

What else do your constituents need to know about this situation?

The current nuclear launch process is unconstitutional. If you look at the Constitution, the framers went to great lengths to stop the president. They created an entire legislative branch to stop the president. They created an entire judicial branch to stop the president. And then they gave the greatest power they knew at that time — the power to declare war — to Congress. There’s no way the framers of the Constitution would have contemplated or allowed one person to launch thousands of nuclear weapons that can kill hundreds of millions of people in less than an hour, and not call that war. If you don’t call that war, you write the term out of the Constitution. Our bill is very simple: It says Congress has the power to declare war, and the president can’t do a first use of nuclear weapons without approval from a majority of Congress.

The second thing people should know is this applies to a nuclear first strike. It doesn’t apply if we were responding in self-defense. So if North Korea were to launch against us, this bill doesn’t apply. If Russia were to launch against us, this doesn’t apply. This only applies to a premeditated nuclear first strike. I want people to understand this.

The “nuclear football” is a leather satchel, containing nuclear codes, that accompanies the president everywhere
Photo by Jamie Chung / Smithsonian Institute

Is this legislation intended to carry forward for all future presidents?

Yes. Sen. Markey and I actually introduced this bill last year when everyone thought Hillary [Clinton] was going to be president. We intended this bill to apply to Hillary Clinton and all future presidents because we believe that the system needs to change. Donald Trump has now made the issue much more urgent, but we do believe that this is a constitutional issue irrespective of who happens to be president.

Has the presidency become too powerful a position versus the legislative and judicial branches?

In the area of the military, absolutely. I think the executive branch has gotten way more power than is constitutional in terms of engaging in military conflicts, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. During Obama, I sent out numerous statements saying the airstrikes he was conducting in Syria were unconstitutional. He didn’t get any congressional authorization for use of force against Syria.

You have a constitutional illegitimacy clock on your website. What specific unconstitutional acts are you resisting?

I believe Donald Trump is the first president in history to violate the Constitution the second after he swore his oath of office. The Emoluments Clause was put in the Constitution by the framers because they believed foreign influence was a danger to the republic. It basically says you can’t accept gifts and payments from foreign countries. Well, President Trump has all these businesses all over the world and they’re accepting foreign payments all the time, and sometimes they’re accepting gifts. You’ve got foreign dignitaries staying
at Trump hotels trying to curry favor with the president — that’s just flat-
out unconstitutional under the Emoluments Clause.

I believe he’s committed a number of illegal and unconstitutional acts. One is obstruction of justice, when he fired Director [James] Comey to influence an FBI investigation. When he launched the 59 cruise missiles at Syria, a country that did not attack the U.S., that was unconstitutional because he had no authorization from Congress. You had both Republican and Democratic legislators saying that it was unconstitutional.

What are the most surreal aspects of this presidency for you?

That Donald Trump doesn’t seem to realize the honor and dignity of the office, and that a president should not be knocking people — he shouldn’t be calling a news anchor “dumb as a rock”; he shouldn’t be name-calling dangerous world leaders; he shouldn’t be going after NBA and NFL athletes; he shouldn’t be making policy in 140 characters or less.

And really the disrespect for the rule of law is just shocking. You have Jared Kushner making false statements on his security clearance application two times. You have Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions lying to Congress in order to get confirmed. And then you have these massive ethical violations, like [former] Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price taking private jets instead of flying commercial at a cost to taxpayers of $400,000 already. That’s why I and four other members of Congress wrote a letter [on Sept. 28] calling on [Price] to resign.

Do you believe some of President Trump’s divisive behavior is intended to distract people from the Russia investigation, or to saturate people with so many things that the public can’t focus on core issues?

I think sometimes that may be the case, but after about nine months of this I’ve concluded he’s just an impulsive, angry person who has racist and bigoted views. I don’t actually think he made his comment that there were “some very fine people” at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to distract — I think he actually believes that. He’s just putting out his racist and bigoted views.

Arguably the greatest casualty of the 2016 presidential election season was truth. Does truth even matter anymore in Washington?

I served on active duty in the Air Force because I believe America is an exceptional country — the best country in the world. Because of that, I did not set out to resist Donald Trump. Shortly after the election, I issued a public statement that basically said one thing that makes America great is our peaceful transfer of power, Donald Trump won the Electoral College, we should give him a chance to govern. A couple months later I concluded I was wrong.

It wasn’t because we disagreed on policy; I disagree with lots of people on policy, both Democrats and Republicans. It was because I saw that Trump was attacking the institutions of our democracy: attacking the legitimacy of the judiciary; attacking the free press and the First Amendment; he was stifling internal dissent; and he was lying at a rate I’ve never seen a human being lie. The Washington Post tracked everything he said in the first 100 days and concluded he made over 450 false or misleading statements. Not to be outdone, The New York Times published an article that he made over 800 false or misleading statements in his first six months. When that happens, it makes it hard for people to understand the difference between fact and fiction, to distinguish between things that are true or false, and that leads us down the road to authoritarianism. And that’s why I believe President Trump is a danger to the republic. I hope he changes, but until he does I’m going to keep resisting.

What should your constituents do about all this?

My constituents are doing great. I remember being very sad on election night, all the way to Jan. 20, and on Jan. 21 I saw these amazing women’s marches across America, including in the South Bay. And I thought, this is the country that I know, and there’s more of us than the relatively small movement of Donald Trump. Protests, rallies, calls to members of Congress and the White House, the people who are speaking out on social media and talking to their neighbors and speaking up at work — all that is very helpful for changing public opinion.

I have always loved this quote by Abraham Lincoln that “Public sentiment is everything: With it, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” And my constituents are helping to change public sentiment. I think that’s one reason the Obamacare repeal failed even though you have unified Republican control of the federal government. It’s because the public rose up.