Na­tional Se­cu­rity

Mad­man on the Po­tomac

Newsweek International - - CON­TENT - BY JEFF STEIN Spytalker

Don­ald Trump emerges from his White House bedroom in the mid­dle of the night, cell­phone in hand, en­raged by the lat­est taunt from North Ko­rea’s Kim Jong Un. He spots the mil­i­tary aide sit­ting in the cor­ri­dor with a black valise in his lap. It’s called the nu­clear foot­ball.

“I’m gonna take care of this son of a bitch once and for all,” Trump growls. “Big-time. Gimme the codes.”

The aide cracks open the valise and hands the pres­i­dent a loose-leaf binder with a col­or­ful menu of Ar­maged­don op­tions. They range from to­tal an­ni­hi­la­tion plans for Rus­sia and China down to a va­ri­ety of strikes tai­lored to North Ko­rea.

“I’ll take that one,” Trump says.

The aide then hands him an en­ve­lope with a set of num­bers and let­ters, the ones that ver­ify it’s re­ally him when he calls De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis. It’s the same code that will go down to the­ater com­man­ders, B-1 bombers, Wy­oming mis­sile si­los and sub­marines lurk­ing off North Ko­rea.

“Do it,” he tells Mat­tis. “Wipe him the hell out.”

What was once just a ner­vous joke among Wash­ing­ton pol­i­cy­mak­ers and mil­i­tary ex­perts when Trump ran for the pres­i­dency has sud­denly crept closer to a hor­ren­dous range of pos­si­bil­i­ties, judg­ing from a Newsweek sur­vey of for­mer Pen­tagon of­fi­cials and ex­perts. And no one knows where the con­fronta­tion is headed af­ter weeks of in­creas­ingly per­sonal in­sults and mil­i­tary provo­ca­tions from both sides.

On Septem­ber 26, days af­ter the Pen­tagon sent B-1 bombers and fighter es­corts near North Ko­rea in a dis­play of mil­i­tary force, Py­ongyang “moved a small num­ber of fighter jets, ex­ter­nal fuel tanks and air-toair mis­siles to a base on its eastern coast,” ac­cord­ing to re­ports. And Trump threat­ened Py­ongyang once again, say­ing he was pre­pared for “a mil­i­tary op­tion” to solve the cri­sis, which would be “dev­as­tat­ing.”

An­a­lysts with long ex­pe­ri­ence in the re­gion say they fear an ac­ci­dent—a col­li­sion of jets or ships, a wayward ar­tillery shell—could quickly cause the sit­u­a­tion to spi­ral, es­pe­cially with Trump and North Korean of­fi­cials ex­chang­ing in­sults. In his United Na­tions speech on Septem­ber 19, Trump called Kim “Rocket Man,” fol­lowed later by “Lit­tle Rocket Man.” Kim re­sponded by call­ing Trump a “men­tally de­ranged U.S. dotard,” a word long out of use that sent mil­lions scur­ry­ing for

their dic­tio­nar­ies. (It means some­one de­crepit and se­nile.) Trump then vowed that Kim and his for­eign min­is­ter “won’t be around much longer.”

“I think this tit for tat Trump has ginned up is not only dan­ger­ous and un­nec­es­sary but cre­at­ing an es­ca­la­tion spi­ral that is in­creas­ing the odds of mis­cal­cu­la­tion,” says Robert Man­ning, a for­mer se­nior U.S. in­tel­li­gence ex­pert on Ko­rea and strate­gic weapons in the Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions. “It’s not just a war of words,” he tells Newsweek.

“We keep fly­ing B-1s up their ka­zoo.” That, along with Trump call­ing Kim names, says Man­ning, now a se­nior fel­low with the Brent Scowcroft Cen­ter on In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity at the At­lantic Coun­cil, “in­flates” Kim’s ego. It’s “mind-bog­glingly stupid.”

As if to make the point, on Septem­ber 25 North Ko­rea’s for­eign min­is­ter buffed Trump’s threats into a dec­la­ra­tion of war. “That’s ab­surd,” White House spokes­woman Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said. The regime also vowed to “take coun­ter­mea­sures, in­clud­ing the right to shoot down bombers.”

But so far, there have been no signs North Ko­rea is pre­par­ing to at­tack South Ko­rea, Ja­pan or U.S. bases in the re­gion, even as it threat­ens to ex­plode a hy­dro­gen bomb some­where over the Pa­cific. With the ac­ri­mony deep­en­ing, how­ever, an in­creas­ing num­ber of an­a­lysts now fear some­thing less lethal but pro­foundly dan­ger­ous: a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis, pro­voked by an im­pul­sive Trump or­der for a pre-emp­tive strike. “Some­one in the chain would say no,” says a for­mer se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cial, shar­ing his views with Newsweek on con­di­tion of anonymity due to the is­sue’s sen­si­tiv­ity. “That’s what I be­lieve, hav­ing worked with th­ese guys”—mean­ing mil­i­tary lead­ers from Mat­tis on down to the U.S. forces com­man­der in South Ko­rea, Gen­eral Vin­cent Brooks. “It would be re­ally hard for Trump to be capri­cious about a spur-of-the-mo­ment at­tack,” the for­mer of­fi­cial con­tin­ues. “He’d have to make it a ma­jor strat­egy thing that’s been long planned, in con­sul­ta­tion with Mat­tis and Dun­ford.” Gen­eral Joseph Dun­ford is chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The for­mer of­fi­cial adds that Brooks, es­pe­cially, who has won a wide cir­cle of ad­mir­ers for his forth­right yet nu­anced views on the in­ter­sec­tion of do­mes­tic pol­i­tics and mil­i­tary strat­egy, would not fol­low such a mid­night or­der. “If Brooks truly felt Trump was just say­ing, ‘Fuck it, I want to at­tack to­day’—that there was not a truly im­mi­nent threat to U.S. forces and the home­land, he might refuse the or­der.” Brooks could not be im­me­di­ately reached for com­ment.

It’s not likely a Trump or­der would get down that far, an­a­lysts say. Peo­ple who know Mat­tis tell Newsweek he would re­sign rather than carry out an im­pul­sive or­der from Trump to at­tack North Ko­rea, with nu­clear weapons or not. Trump could fire Mat­tis, but that could set off “a po­lit­i­cal firestorm and even a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis that could pre­vent prompt ex­e­cu­tion of the or­der,” says Kingston Reif, di­rec­tor of dis­ar­ma­ment and threat re­duc­tion pol­icy at the Arms Con­trol As­so­ci­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

In Oc­to­ber 1973, Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon sparked a cri­sis by or­der­ing his at­tor­ney gen­eral, Elliot Richard­son, to fire the spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor over­see­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the crimes that be­came known as Water­gate. Richard­son re­fused and re­signed, and so did his deputy. Nixon fi­nally found some­body to carry out that deed, but the move back­fired, in­flam­ing the im­peach­ment drive and forc­ing him from of­fice 10 months later.

Even more rel­e­vant to Trump, says a grow­ing cho­rus of com­men­ta­tors, is another in­ci­dent from Nixon’s fi­nal days, when, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous ac­counts, his chief of staff Alexan­der Haig, an army gen­eral, asked mil­i­tary com­man­ders to check back if they re­ceived any un­usual di­rec­tives from the deeply de­pressed, some­times drunk pres­i­dent.

Chris Whip­ple, au­thor of The Gate­keep­ers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff De­fine Every Pres­i­dency, tells Newsweek that John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, “needs to take a page from that...and just be sure that he’s in the loop when it comes to the nu­clear foot­ball.”

There’s no rule stop­ping Trump from fir­ing Mat­tis and con­tin­u­ing down the chain of com­mand un­til he finds some­one will­ing to at­tack North Ko­rea, an­a­lysts say. Any de­fense sec­re­tary, notes Kath­leen Hicks, a for­mer prin­ci­pal deputy un­der­sec­re­tary for pol­icy at the Pen­tagon, is merely “a check in the sys­tem against ov­er­en­thu­si­asm” on the pres­i­dent’s part for let­ting loose the nukes. Un­der the rules of the Na­tional Com­mand Au­thor­ity, the only weapon Mat­tis has to stop Trump’s launch or­der is per­sua­sion. If he blocks it, “then the pres­i­dent may, in his sole dis­cre­tion, fire” him, it says, and tap the next per­son in the

Kim called Trump a “men­tally de­ranged U.S. dotard,” which sent mil­lions scur­ry­ing for their dic­tio­nar­ies.

chain of com­mand to carry it out. If he wants, Trump can reach right down to a gen­eral head­ing a re­gional com­mand. The Uniform Code of Mil­i­tary Jus­tice re­quires sworn of­fi­cers to carry out a bad but law­ful or­der, set­ting up the kind of dilemma dra­ma­tized in the hit 1992 court mar­tial drama A Few Good Men.

“To say that the sec­re­tary of de­fense and his sub­or­di­nates have a le­gal duty to com­ply with pres­i­den­tial or­ders is not to say that they should do so,” Jack Gold­smith, who held high po­si­tions in the Jus­tice and De­fense depart­ments, wrote re­cently. But “they have to be pre­pared to ac­cept the con­se­quences of de­fi­ance,” which in­clude “re­sign­­sist­ing un­til fired, in­form­ing con­gres­sional lead­ers (in or out of pub­lic), or qui­etly co­or­di­nat­ing with the vice pres­i­dent and oth­ers for pres­i­den­tial re­moval un­der the 25th Amend­ment.”

“All of this is un­charted ter­ri­tory,” says Reif. And com­pound­ing the le­gal, mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal com­plex­i­ties of the sit­u­a­tion, some an­a­lysts en­vi­sion Kim hit­ting first with a lim­ited strike, such as a bar­rage of rocket and ar­tillery fire on Seoul, which would kill tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, prompt­ing U.S. and South Korean coun­ter­fire. But then Kim could sit back and let Trump make the next big move. “Pres­i­dent Trump would then be faced with an unimag­in­able de­ci­sion: con­tinue the at­tack and see po­ten­tially mil­lions more die, or give in to Kim’s de­mands and stop,” wrote re­tired Lieu­tenant Colonel Daniel Davis (who served un­der White House na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. Mc­mas­ter in Iraq). Given North Ko­rea’s hard­ened de­fenses, mas­sive rocket sup­plies and nu­clear weaponry, “the in­ter­ests of the United States would be gravely harmed no mat­ter what choice Trump makes at that point,” Davis says.

There’s no rule stop­ping Trump from fir­ing Mat­tis and con­tin­u­ing down the chain of com­mand un­til he finds some­one will­ing to at­tack North Ko­rea.

Judg­ing by the er­ratic lead­er­ship he’s demon­strated so far, Trump doesn’t look pre­pared to care­fully weigh an ar­ray of mil­i­tary op­tions that in­clude the use of nu­clear weapons. No pres­i­dent re­ally is, Whip­ple says. “Every White House chief of staff can prob­a­bly tell you in chill­ing de­tail about the day the chair­man of the joint chiefs came in and ex­plained to the pres­i­dent and his chief the op­er­a­tion of the nu­clear codes. It’s a gut-check mo­ment for every chief and ob­vi­ously, one would hope, every pres­i­dent.”

Even some of Trump’s most ac­com­plished, so­phis­ti­cated fans had lit­tle idea of the li­cense a pres­i­dent has to un­leash a civ­i­liza­tion-end­ing nu­clear war, Whip­ple tells Newsweek. When he was on a trip with for­mer Ge­orge W. Bush chief of staff An­drew Card to give a talk, they en­coun­tered a cor­po­rate CEO who said he planned to vote for Trump. “And I said, ‘You know you’re giv­ing this guy the nu­clear codes, and there’s noth­ing to pre­vent him from us­ing them?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m not too wor­ried about that.’”

Whip­ple turned to Card and said, “Andy, tell him.” Card then told the CEO, “in chill­ing de­tail,” about the guid­ance Bush got on the eve of his 2001 in­au­gu­ra­tion, and how no­body had any au­thor­ity to stop him from ac­ti­vat­ing the foot­ball. “Andy said to this guy, ‘There’s noth­ing—noth­ing—to pre­vent the pres­i­dent from do­ing this on his own.’” Card did not re­spond to

Newsweek’s re­quest for com­ment. Cal­i­for­nia Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ted Lieu and Mas­sachusetts Sen­a­tor Ed Markey, both Democrats, want to take the free­lance nu­clear op­tion out of Trump’s hands. In Jan­uary, they in­tro­duced a bill that would pro­hibit a pres­i­dent from launch­ing a pre-emp­tive nu­clear strike with­out a con­gres­sional dec­la­ra­tion of war. It’s not go­ing any­where in the Gop-con­trolled Con­gress.

“I would cer­tainly not do first strike,” Trump de­clared a year ago dur­ing one of his pres­i­den­tial de­bates with Hil­lary Clin­ton. But mo­ments later, he cir­cled back with a con­tra­dic­tory re­sponse: “At the same time, we have to be pre­pared. I can’t take any­thing off the ta­ble.” Since then, with every North Korean provo­ca­tion, he’s in­creas­ingly reverted to the “fire and fury” he pledged in Au­gust to rain down on Py­ongyang if it en­dan­gers U.S. in­ter­ests.

No­body knows how he’ll feel when he wakes up to find that Kim has tested another H-bomb, flung a mis­sile over Ja­pan or nee­dled him with another in­sult. All we know is that when he wan­ders out in his bathrobe and opens the nu­clear foot­ball, he’s got the keys to Ar­maged­don in his hands.

“I would cer­tainly not do first strike,” Trump said. “[But] I can’t take any­thing off the ta­ble.”

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