Ted Lieu is a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing California’s 33rd congressional district since 2015. Rep. Lieu served in the JAG corps from 1995-1999 and as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve from 2000-2016. Lieu has been an outspoken critic of the war on Yemen, and more recently, of President Trump’s authority to unilaterally authorize a nuclear first strike. AlterNet contacted Lieu to discuss the legislation he’s introduced that would require congressional authorization for such nuclear strikes as well as his thoughts on President Trump’s treatment of North Korea.
Ken Klippenstein: What was your personal reaction when you first heard Trump’s threat to bring ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’ to North Korea?
Ted Lieu: My first reaction was, that’s an idiotic statement. It’s unnecessarily provocative. We know so little about the North Korean regime, we don’t know how they’re going to take that kind of incendiary language. It increases their chances for miscalculation.
KK: When Trump uses that kind of rhetoric, is it just bluster?
TL: I’ve learned to stop predicting this president. I have no idea what he’s thinking. What he’s thinking can change depending on the day of the week. The one thing that he has done in his first six months is massive inconsistency, as well as a series of false and misleading statements.
KK: You’ve said, ‘There are zero good military options against North Korea.’ What would military intervention look like?
TL: There are three reasons why there are no good military options. One is, we don’t know where all their nuclear weapons are; we don’t even know how many they have. So we have very little intelligence and data about this closed regime. So that makes any military conflict difficult because a lot of it is flying blind. If the actual goal is to get a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula, the only real way to do it is a ground invasion where you go find every possible nuclear weapon and you destroy it. That is not a good military option: a lot of people would die in that kind of invasion.
The second reason there’s no good military option is because North Korea has in addition to nuclear weapons, chemical weapons as well. They could lob chemical weapons into South Korea where 150,000 Americans live as well as multiple U.S. bases and over 2 million South Koreans in Seoul alone.
Third reason there’s no good military option is, in additional to nuclear and chemical weapons, North Korea also has a massive conventional military with all sorts of missiles and artillery that can hit South Korea, Japan (where over 50,000 Americans live as well as multiple military bases) and Guam as well. So if we, for example, launch cruise missiles on North Korea, they can decide to rain fire down on South Korea and kill hundreds of thousands of people. That would not be a good military option for us.
KK: You’ve introduced legislation that would require Congress to authorize nuclear weapons use. How would that function? And what would you say to people tentative about it because they think it would diminish our deterrence capability?
TL: When the framers designed the Constitution, they put in all sorts of checks and balances on the president. They put in an entire judiciary to stop the president. They put in an entire legislative branch to stop the president. And then they gave the greatest power they knew at that time, the power to declare war, to Congress. [Massachusetts] Senator [Ed] Markey and I believe there is no way that the framers would have allowed one person, the president, to launch thousands of nuclear missiles and kill hundreds of millions of people in less than hour, without congressional approval. That actually would be war. If you don’t call it war, you basically red out the constitution.
Our bill is very simple: it says basically only Congress can declare war; you, Mr. President, cannot launch a first strike of nuclear weapons without congressional authorization. It does not affect their current status quo of mutually assured destruction in any way. Mutually assured destruction does not rely on a first strike; it relies on the ability of the United States to annihilate anyone who strikes us. This bill does not address the ability of the president to respond in self-defense or with a second strike; it just says we should not be the aggressor and use nuclear weapons first.
KK: You’ve said Congress will start the impeachment process if Trump fires special counsel Robert Mueller. Would Congress start the impeachment process if Trump pursues a military option in North Korea? Do you think that’s grounds for it?
TL: If he does it without congressional authorization and it’s not in self-defense, yes, I think that would provide grounds for impeachment. I do believe that. If he starts a war with North Korea without congressional approval, that would be grounds for impeachment.
KK: Have your Republican colleagues in Congress expressed any concerns to you about Trump’s rhetoric with respect to North Korea? Do they seem open to your proposal?
TL: Yes. It is a bipartisan bill. Republican congressman Walter Jones [of North Carolina] signed on earlier this year and we’re reaching out to other Republicans as well. There are a number of Republicans who are libertarian and have a very strict reading of the Constitution and they would agree with me that the current launch approval process is unconstitutional. We’re reaching out to a number of Republicans to see if they would co-author. I think they would likely vote for the bill, the only issue is do they sign as a co-author.
KK: Describe what you think is the solution to the North Korea issue.
TL: Having served in the military, it’s very clear to me that military force should always be the last resort and you’ve got to exhaust all other options. The Trump administration has definitely not exhausted the option of diplomacy. You have a total of zero talks with the North Koreans. They need to at least try diplomacy before they even consider going down the dark and bloody path of a catastrophic war.
A few days ago they signaled that the U.S. would be open to talks with North Korea—I thought that was a good sign—until Trump yesterday made his incendiary remarks. That’s another problem with the administration: you don’t really know what their strategy is. They have not articulated it to the American people. They go back and forth; they send conflicting signals. So it’s a very bad place for America to be in when our executive branch doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing.
KK: Do you think Trump’s threats degrade our credibility?
TL: If they’re not executed, yes. So now you have the problem where you’ve got Trump potentially backing himself into a corner with all these threats. At some point, either Trump is going to have to reverse himself and damage credibility, or he’s going to feel compelled to execute on those threats, which could cost the lives of a lot of people.