Could anyone stop Trump from launching nukes? The answer: No
WASHINGTON (AP) — Here’s a question rarely raised before Donald Trump ran for the White House: If the president ordered a preemptive nuclear strike, could anyone stop him? The answer is no. Not the Congress. Not his secretary of defense. And by design, not the military officers who would be duty-bound to execute the order.
As Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer and expert on nuclear command and control, has put it, “The protocol for ordering the use of nuclear weapons endows every president with civilization-ending power.” Trump, he wrote in a Washington Post column last summer, “has unchecked authority to order a preventive nuclear strike against any nation he wants with a single verbal direction to the Pentagon war room.”
Or, as then-Vice President Dick Cheney explained in December 2008, the president “could launch a kind of devastating attack the world’s never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody. He doesn’t have to call the Congress. He doesn’t have to check with the courts.”
And the world has changed even more in the decade since, with North Korea posing a bigger and more immediate nuclear threat than had seemed possible. The nature of the U.S. political world has changed, too, and Trump’s opponents — even within his own party — question whether he has too much power over nuclear weapons.
These realities will converge today in a Senate hearing room where the Foreign Relations Committee — headed by one of Trump’s strongest Republican critics, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee — will hear testimony from a former commander of the Pentagon’s nuclear war fighting command and other witnesses. The topic: “Authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.”
Corker said numerous lawmakers have raised questions about legislative and presidential war-making authorities and the use of America’s nuclear arsenal.
“This discussion is long overdue,” Corker said in announcing the hearing.
Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology who has researched and written extensively about presidential nuclear authority, said he hopes the discussion “might shed some more light on aspects of the procedures for presidential use of nuclear weapons that I think really needs to be known and talked about.”
He said the U.S. system has evolved through tradition and precedent more than by laws.
“The technology of the bomb itself does not compel this sort of arrangement,” he wrote in an email exchange. “This is a product of circumstances. I think the circumstances under which the system was created, and the world we now live in, are sufficiently different that we could, and perhaps should, contemplate revision of the system.”
Asked about this Monday in an impromptu exchange at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was reluctant to describe his role in nuclear strike decision-making. “I’m the president’s principal adviser on the use of force,” he said. Asked whether he was comfortable with the system as it exists, he said, “I am,” but did not elaborate.