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NPR

President Trump told the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday that the U.S. may have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend itself and its allies. Richard Drew/AP hide caption

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Richard Drew/AP

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker has crossed swords with President Trump before — in August, he accused Trump of lacking the “stability” and “some of the competence” needed to be successful. But the Tennessee Republican may now be defying Trump with more than just words.

In a brief interview at the Capitol, Corker told NPR his committee is looking at legislation that would prohibit any first-strike use of nuclear weapons without a prior declaration of war by Congress. “I’ve had other members talk with me a little about it, and we’re doing some research on that topic,” he said. “We really began to do so at the end of last week.”

Corker revealed his panel’s new initiative shortly after Trump told the U.N. General Assembly that “if (the U.S.) is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

“Every president since we’ve had nuclear weapons has had the ability to launch them,” Corker noted. “That’s the way our nation is.”

But a bill introduced four days after Trump took office would put a check on the president’s unfettered sole authority to launch a nuclear strike. The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 explicitly forbids the first use of nuclear weapons without authorization from Congress through a declaration of war.

“I think it’s important for us to understand that nuclear weapons are meant to be used defensively and not offensively — in other words, not as a first strike against another country,” said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, a member of the Foreign Relations panel who’s the bill’s lead sponsor (an identical bill, H.R.669, was introduced the same day in the House by California Democrat Ted Lieu).

“The more the president talks about the total destruction of North Korea,” Markey said after the president’s U.N. speech, “the more it’s necessary for the country and the Congress to have a debate over what the authority of a president is to launch nuclear weapons against another country.”

Asked whether his committee will hold a hearing on Markey’s proposed bill, Corker was noncommittal. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see. We’re just looking at it to see what is the proper role here.”

The push to place a legislative check on Trump’s power to unleash a nuclear strike faces significant obstacles. Congress has long been averse to declaring war — it has not done so since the U.S. entered World War II in 1941. A bill requiring a nuclear war declaration would also likely face a presidential veto.

And Markey acknowledged no Republican lawmakers have yet signed on as co-sponsors of his legislation. “But I am confident that as this debate continues to intensify, there will be members on both sides who understand that we, as a Senate, as a House, should exercise our constitutional responsibility to declare nuclear war in the event that we have never been attacked with nuclear weapons in the first place.”