Investigating the Nuclear Brink

No one can stop Donald Trump from ordering a pre-emptive nuclear strike. “Under the current nuclear strike protocol,” writes Bruce Blair, President Trump “can consult any and all — or none — of his national security advisers, and no one can legally countermand his order. If he gave the green light using his nuclear codes, a launch order the length of a tweet would be transmitted and carried out within a few minutes… There would be no recalling missiles fired from silos and submarines.”


For the first time in 41 years, U.S. lawmakers held a hearing investigating that authority.


The Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Bob Corker convened the hearing today. It’s the first hearing on nuclear launch authority in more than four decades, according to the Congressional Research Service. The committee heard from a retired head of Strategic Command; a former acting deputy secretary of defense for policy, and a professor at Duke University.


"A number of members both on and off our committee have raised questions about the authorities of the legislative and executive branches with respect to war making, the use of nuclear weapons, and conducting foreign policy overall," said Sen. Corker in a statement last week. "This continues a series of hearings to examine those issues and will be the first time since 1976 that this committee or our House counterparts have looked specifically at the authority and process for using U.S. nuclear weapons. This discussion is long overdue, and we look forward to examining this critical issue.”


“We are concerned,” said Senator Chris Murphy during the hearing, “that the President of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decisionmaking process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.  So let’s just recognize the exceptional nature of this moment and the discussion that we’re having today.”


As then-Vice President Dick Cheney said in 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." As Richard Nixon told reporters in his darkest hours as president, threatened by impeachment and drinking heavily, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.”


Senator Ed Markey, who has cosponsored a bill to restrict the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons, pointed out during the hearing that “There may be plans in place, right now, at the White House, to launch a preemptive war with North Korea using nuclear weapons — without consulting Congress. No one human being should ever have the power.”


In the Cold War, speed was seen as essential to the nuclear launch equation: if the Soviets had launched missiles headed towards the U.S. mainland, the president needed to be able to launch a counter-strike quickly and efficiently. U.S. nuclear launch policy was not designed for debate or circumspection, but for speed: Soviet missiles could reach the U.S. in half an hour. A president could consult with his National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, or other aides -- but he doesn’t need to. He can communicate his decision to military commanders through the nuclear football in a matter of minutes. “The whole point of U.S. nuclear weapons control,” writes Alex Wellerstein, “is to make sure that the president — and only the president — can use them if and whenever he decides to do so.”


No other nuclear power has launch authority so concentrated on one person. While legislation has been proposed in Congress to curtail that authority, more action is needed to ensure that no single person has the ability to end all life on earth. Alexandra Bell, Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, argued that the conversation must continue: “Today's SFRC hearing was the start of what should be a larger conversation about US nuclear policy. Unfortunate that the witnesses generally avoided the orange elephant in the room-the fact that our nuclear command structure didn't account for a President like Trump.”


One moment encapsulated the surreal nature of the hearing. Senator Ron Johnson was quizzing retired General Robert Kehler on why he said the military could question the president’s order to launch a nuclear weapon. Kehler assured the senator that senior commanders could refuse an order they thought was illegal. “And then what happens?” asked Senator Johnson. “I don’t know exactly,” chuckled Gen. Kehler. The room went silent.


--Rose Blanchard is a research assistant at Ploughshares Fund.


More resources:

--“Time to Restrict the President’s Power to Wage Nuclear War” by Jeffrey Bader and Jonathan D. Pollack for The New York Times, September 12, 2017 here.

--“Trump has ‘unchecked authoirity’ to order a nuclear attack” by Martin Finucane for The Boston Globe, August 8, 2017 here.

--“To Launch a Nuclear Strike, Donald Trump Would Follow These Steps” by Dave Merrill, Nafeesa Syeed and Brittany Harris for Bloomberg Politics, January 20, 2017 here.

--“Presidents have too much power over U.S. nukes. Especially President Trump” by Bruce Blair for The Washington Post, August 18, 2017 here.

--“Whose Finger Is on the Button? Nuclear Launch Authority in the United States and Other Nations” by Eryn MacDonald for Union of Concerned Scientists, 2017 here.

--“Can Anyone Stop Trump From Launching Nuclear Weapons?” by David Corn for Mother Jones, August 23, 2017 here.

Edited by