John Conyers

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., brings wisdom and experience to the table as he takes a lead in organizing congressional opposition to President Trump’s bombastic threats about unleashing “fire and fury” on North Korea. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

Congressman John Conyers knows a good deal more than Donald Trump does about the Korean Peninsula. And the dean of the House knows a great deal more than Trump does about the Constitution.

So it is worth noting that Conyers has taken a lead in organizing congressional opposition to Trump’s bombastic threats about unleashing “fire and fury” on North Korea.

Conyers has precisely what our “locked and loaded” president lacks: the wisdom that extends from experience.

As a young volunteer with the Michigan National Guard, Conyers was called up to serve with the 1279th Combat Engineers in the Korean War. He served in the war zone for a year as a lieutenant supervising repairs and replacements of Army aircraft.

When Conyers got home, he went to law school and, with encouragement from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., began a political career that would eventually see him chair the House Judiciary Committee. His decades of experience with congressional oversight of successive presidents during the Vietnam War, Ronald Reagan’s illegal interventions in Central America in the 1980s, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War have made him an expert on questions about when and how presidents may steer the country into conflict.

Based on his experience, Conyers argues that Trump is getting everything wrong when he answers North Korean saber rattling with American saber rattling.

“As a veteran of the Korean War, I am ashamed that our commander in chief is conducting himself in a reckless manner that endangers our troops stationed in Korea and our regional allies,” explained the Michigan Democrat. “Trump must immediately cease talk of pre-emptive war — which must be authorized by Congress — and commit to the diplomatic path advocated by both American experts and the South Korean government.”

Conyers is right. And his position has attracted considerable support in Congress. For instance, while Trump claims to be concerned about threats to Guam, the congressional representative from Guam, Madeleine Bordallo, said she agrees with Conyers.

“President Trump’s statements were unhelpful, dangerous and raised tensions with North Korea higher than we have previously seen,” said Rep. Bordallo. “This has led to North Korea directly threatening nearly 168,000 American citizens living in my home district of Guam. While I have great confidence in our military’s capabilities … President Trump must show steady leadership to prevent further escalating tensions. I join Representative Conyers and my Democratic colleagues in calling on the Trump administration to work with the international community and engage in diplomatic discussions with North Korea. It is imperative that President Trump and his administration work toward a peaceful solution to this situation and refrain from any action that could lead toward a military conflict.”

Bordallo joined Conyers and 60 other House members in signing an urgent letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in which they expressed “profound concern over the statements made by President Trump that dramatically increased tensions with North Korea and raised the specter of nuclear war.”

“These statements are irresponsible and dangerous, and also senselessly provide a boon to domestic North Korean propaganda which has long sought to portray the United States as a threat to their people,” the House members explained in the Aug. 10 letter. “Accordingly, we respectfully but firmly urge you to do everything in your power to ensure that President Trump and other administration officials understand the importance of speaking and acting with the utmost caution and restraint on this delicate issue. Congress and the American public will hold President Trump responsible if a careless or ill-advised miscalculation results in conflict that endangers our service members and regional allies. To allay these concerns, the Trump administration should publicly declare its agreement with the constitutional requirement that any pre-emptive attack on North Korea must be debated and authorized by Congress.”

That final line gets to the heart of the matter.

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Trump lacks the authority to order a pre-emptive assault on North Korea. While the president has a responsibility to defend the United States when another country attacks, the power to declare war (and, in so doing, to authorize the use of force) rests with Congress.

Conyers and his concerned colleagues are obeying the oaths they swore “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Donald Trump swore a parallel oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Congress should remind him of that by outlining clear limits on the use of force — especially with regard to pre-emptive and unilateral nuclear strikes. If House Speaker Paul Ryan chooses to try to block House action, the threat engendered by his sycophantic relationship with the president should be recognized and addressed by the chamber.

If, in the end, Trump chooses to disregard his oath, then he should be impeached and removed from office.

Should it come to that, John Conyers will, again, be able to call on wisdom grounded in experience. He is, after all, the last remaining member of the House Judiciary Committee that voted for articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in July 1974.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times