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I asked 7 Republican senators about Trump’s nuclear button tweet. They seemed unfazed.

“It’s Trump being Trump.”

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President Donald Trump walks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY).
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s mockery of the size of North Korean leader Kim Jung Un’s nuclear “button” — he tweeted, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works” — made the nation shudder at the possibility of nuclear war.

But in Congress, it prompted what has become a routine dance among Republicans — a Trump tweet shuffle that begins with some hemming and hawing.

The Weekly Standard’s Haley Byrd asked Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) about Trump’s tweet threatening Kim multiple times, to no avail. “You keep asking that question, and I keep being too busy to answer it,” Corker said the second time Byrd posed the question. Not too long ago, Corker, the chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, famously expressed that he was concerned Trump was putting the nation on a “path to World War III.”

There are always the lukewarm admonishments of the president, but Republicans largely explained away the tweet by saying it’s just “Trump being Trump,” as Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the third-ranking Republican, told reporters Wednesday. And per usual, as time passed, a defense of the president began to form.

But when it comes to how Congress can act, Republicans are less eager to involve themselves. Unlike with a declaration of war, Trump doesn’t need Congress to authorize a nuclear strike. Currently, there is a proposal by House and Senate Democrats to require Congress’s approval for such a launch — but the tweet hasn’t seemed to prompt Republicans to take it up.

“The conversation of a nuclear strike is typically one that is an immediate and pressing thing that I don’t think you have time for a legislative debate on,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who sits on the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, said.

Vox asked seven Republican senators whether they took Trump’s tweet seriously, and whether they believe Congress should have a role in launching a nuclear attack. Here are those exchanges, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY): “The president is the commander in chief”

Tara Golshan

I’m curious what you think of giving Congress a role in authorizing nuclear strikes.

John Barrasso

Well, I’m in the Foreign Relations Committee; I’m sure we will discuss it. There is a bill to that effect.

Tara Golshan

Well, what do you think —

John Barrasso

I believe the president is the commander in chief. Thanks.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS): “Are we talking tactical nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear weapons?”

Tara Golshan

I wanted to ask whether you think Congress should have a role in authorizing nuclear strikes.

Roger Wicker

[20-second pause]

I think it would have to really weigh the practicality of such a suggestion. Are we talking tactical nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear weapons?

Tara Golshan

Talk me through the differences there.

Roger Wicker

Yeah. All right.

[Walks away]

Sen. John Thune (R-SD): “It’s Trump being Trump”

Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer And Interim CEO Of Equifax Paulino Barros Testify To Senate Committee On Data Breaches
Sen. John Thune (R-SD).
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Haley Byrd, reporter with the Weekly Standard

Did you read about the nukes?

John Thune

Nukes? It’s Trump being Trump.

Tara Golshan

Should we take it seriously?

Sen. John Thune

[Smiles, stays silent as elevator door closes.]

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK): “I don’t think you have time for a legislative debate”

Tara Golshan

I wanted to ask whether you think Congress should have a role in authorizing nuclear strikes.

James Lankford

Oh, gosh. [laughs] Um. Obviously Congress has a role in any declared war and certainly should. But the conversation of a nuclear strike is typically one that is an immediate and pressing thing that I don’t think you have time for a legislative debate on.

Tara Golshan

So what did you make of Trump’s tweet last night about the nuclear button?

James Lankford

About the button?

Tara Golshan

Yes.

James Lankford

I just took it as him pushing back on Kim Jung Un and saying, “Hey, you are trying to have this bravado because you have a weapon that may be able to reach us, but understand that we have a lot more force and we should actually have some sort of negotiations on this than you just have a lot of bravado on it.”

Reporter

That was a lot more nuanced than the tweet.

James Lankford

Oh, by far. Yeah.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH): “I do think the administration’s more aggressive posture toward North Korea is appropriate”

Tara Golshan

I wanted to ask you what you made of Trump’s tweet about the nuclear button.

Rob Portman

Tell me who you are again?

Tara Golshan

Tara Golshan, with Vox.

Rob Portman

V-O-X, Vox?

Tara Golshan

Yes.

Rob Portman

What’s your question?

Tara Golshan

What did you make of the president’s tweet about the nuclear button last night?

Rob Portman

Which one? [laughs]

Tara Golshan

The tweet that was a back and forth with Kim Jung Un about the bigger nuclear button.

Rob Portman

Okay. I mean, I, first, not my style. But on the other hand, I do think the administration’s more aggressive posture toward North Korea is appropriate, and I think it’s bearing some truth. As you know, I have been very involved in this in the last year and a half because Otto Warmbier [an American student who was held captive in North Korea and died after returning to the US] was a constituent and I became very close with his family. I just saw them.

And let’s face it, through the Bush administration, Obama administration, Clinton administration, we were not able to make any progress. Now you have North Korea agreeing to talk to South Korea. Now you have unprecedented sanctions by the United Nations. China and Russia didn’t block the third round of sanctions, which is amazing to me. So there’s some positive developments. We are not there yet, but it seems like we are finally beginning to make some progress.

Tara Golshan

Should Congress have a role in authorizing a nuclear strike?

Rob Portman

Well, obviously it depends.

Tara Golshan

Would you support —

Rob Portman

Well, it just depends how, obviously ... [trails off as he walks into a meeting]

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO): “[Congress] should always have a role in that kind of action”

Senate Holds Confirmation Hearing For Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO).
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Tara Golshan

I wanted to ask what you made of Trump’s tweet last night on nuclear weapons.

Cory Gardner

Look, I certainly wouldn’t have done that, but what we need to continue to worry about is the fact that you do have a person in Kim Jung Un who is fully committed to using [his] nuclear arsenal against the United States, and that’s what we have to prepare for.

Tara Golshan

Do you think Congress should have a role in authorizing a nuclear strike?

Cory Gardner

We should always have a role in that kind of action that takes place.

Tara Golshan

So legislatively —

Cory Gardner

[Walks into a meeting]

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX): “It seems to be counterproductive”

Tara Golshan

What was your takeaway from President Trump’s tweet on North Korea last night?

John Cornyn

I just think it’s probably better not to tweet about such things. That was my reaction. I don’t think escalating the rhetoric is particularly healthy.

Tara Golshan

How do you think his tweets affect foreign policy?

John Cornyn

Well, when the news covers ’em and people talk about ’em, it seems to escalate the rhetoric in a time where we are also trying to calm things down and work diplomatically with China and other allies to try and deescalate the fight. It seems to be counterproductive. That’s my view.

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