Donald Trump

With an irrational Trump in office, the nuclear power of US president must be tamed

Will Saetren warns that the US president has virtually no restraints on his ability to launch nuclear strikes and, given Trump’s reputation for impulsiveness, Congress should act to impose new limits

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 9:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 6:56pm

Few people realise that Donald Trump, as the American president, has total control over the US nuclear arsenal. Every last one of America’s nuclear weapons is at the US president’s disposal 24/7 and can be launched at any time, for any reason. It’s one of the few processes in the American political system where there are no checks and balances. That is not just an American problem, it’s a global problem.

The United States possesses thousands of nuclear weapons, more than enough to end human civilisation as we know it. Even a limited nuclear conflict, in which only a handful of nuclear weapons are used, would cause a phenomenon called “nuclear winter”, igniting a global famine that could kill billions.

Yet most people are blissfully unaware that the American president is bestowed with the power to hold the entire world hostage. According to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, only 24 per cent of Americans realise that the commander-in-chief has the full authority to order a nuclear attack, without approval from a third party, such as the often-referred-to “adults in the room”, namely Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Even American politicians have shockingly little insight into the immense destructive power vested in the American president. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently held a hearing on the president’s nuclear launch authority, which received extensive coverage in the American press.

There’s a good reason for that. It was the first Congressional hearing on this topic in more than four decades.

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The timing is no coincidence. Last month, US Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the committee, told The New York Times, “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain [Trump]”. He accused the president of treating his office “like a reality show”, and said that there was a very real possibility that Trump’s reckless threats towards other countries could set America “on the path to World War III.” “He concerns me,” the senator said. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

That is a spectacular admission. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill senator. Corker is a powerful Republican, a member of the party that Trump leads, and one of its most respected voices on national security issues.

Trump seems to have little to no grasp of nuclear weapons policy. He has reportedly asked why the United States has nuclear weapons if they cannot be used. According to NBC, dismayed by a graph that showed the decline in US nuclear warhead levels since its cold war peak, Trump said he wanted a tenfold increase, an ask that would cost trillions of dollars, bankrupting the United States in spectacular fashion. That kind of ignorance in a man who is entrusted with the fate of the world could have devastating consequences.

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Imagine the following scenario: Trump emerges from the Oval Office, phone in hand, ego bruised from the latest round of his Twitter war with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. His gaze fixes on the military aide sitting in the corridor, a large leather briefcase resting in his lap. This device is referred to as the nuclear football. It contains the computer the American president has access to round the clock, which can be used to initiate a nuclear launch. “That is it”, he growls. “I’m gonna take care of little Rocket Man once and for all. Gimme the codes.” In this scenario, the military aide would have no choice but to hand over the codes. Failing to do so would be an act of mutiny.

There is a dangerous myth in American politics that someone in the chain of command would refuse to obey the order to launch. A recent Newsweek article cites a senior Pentagon source claiming that, if confronted with the order, senior leaders, including Mattis and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford would talk Trump off the ledge, or resign rather than obeying the order.

Things could play out that way. But it is equally likely that Trump could go on a firing spree using his signature catchphrase – “You’re fired” – dispatching Mattis and Dunford, and proceeding down the chain of command until he finds a commander willing to carry out his orders.

In fact, Trump could bypass them altogether. Historian Alex Wellerstein recently uncovered an Air Force document which spells it out pretty clearly: “The President may direct the use of nuclear weapons through an execute order via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the combatant commanders and, ultimately, to the forces in the field exercising direct control of the weapons.”

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It is deeply ironic that, in America, the power to unleash Armageddon is about as undemocratic as you can possibly get.

The current system is an antiquated holdover from the cold war. For decades, the US and the Soviet Union lived in constant fear of a surprise nuclear attack. If such an attack had ever been detected, the decision to launch a counter-attack would have had to be made in mere minutes. That ruled out having multiple decision-makers, so in the United States, the burden of ending human civilisation fell squarely on the shoulders of the president.

But the cold war ended more than 25 years ago and the USSR is a distant memory. Unfortunately, as with most things in Washington, changing the status quo is impossibly slow, and the president retains complete authority over America’s nuclear arsenal.

Trump’s presidency might be the wake-up call that Congress needs to wrest some power back from the executive branch.

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The US Congress is currently considering legislation that would require a Congressional declaration of war before the president can order a first nuclear strike. The president would retain full authority to launch a nuclear counter-attack, thus preserving the long-standing US policy of mutually assured destruction.

This legislation would significantly bolster global stability as potential adversaries would be far less concerned about the prospect of an American surprise nuclear attack. In a crisis scenario, this reduces the risk of a misunderstanding and conflict escalation.

Limiting the American president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons is a win-win. In the long term, it strengthens America’s democracy. In the short term, it removes the power to initiate Armageddon from an erratic and unpredictable president. Just as Trump’s behaviour concerns Senator Corker, it should concern you, too. Taking away Trump’s power to nuke first won’t solve the existential threat posed by his presidency, but it is a move that will allow us all to sleep better at night.

Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies, where he specialises in nuclear weapons policy