In the summer of 1974, amid reports of President Richard Nixon’s frequent drunkenness under the pressures of Watergate and his imminent ouster, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger quietly asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. George Brown, to call him if he or any of the other chiefs received any “unusual” orders from the commander in chief.
Brown then sent a memo to all the four-star generals and admirals who commanded U.S. military units, conveying the same message: If they received “execute orders” from the president, they were not to carry them out unless the order is verified by Brown or Schlesinger personally. (For the full details of the story, see my book, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, pages 289–90, 344–45).
The story is a spine-tingler to anyone conjuring images of an unhinged Donald Trump roaming the White House corridors in his own “final days,” his mind abuzz with self-pitying conspiracy theories, his pride abused by his death-spiral decline from “Most Powerful Man in the World” to “Loser” (the most savage epithet in his vocabulary)—all the while still endowed with the superhuman power to blow up the world on his command.
We may never find out whether the current JCS chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, is reprising the summer of ’74. But there is little doubt that he and other senior officers have run through what-if scenarios in their minds, if not in actual spelled-out protocols.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, summoning the ultimate fear of Trump’s unbounded powers for the next 12 days, said Friday that she has asked Milley about “available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.”
If Milley was honest in his reply, he would have told Pelosi that there are no such formal precautions—that, in fact, the nuclear command-control system was designed to allow the president, and only the president, to launch nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. This system was put in place so that the United States could respond to (or preempt) an enemy nuclear attack before the enemy’s missiles landed on American soil. But the system’s designers made no distinction between responding to a nuclear attack and launching a nuclear first strike out of the blue. In both cases, the president has untrammeled monopoly control.
All this was made clear in a Senate hearing on Nov. 14, 2017. Three months earlier, Trump had famously warned the North Koreans (this was before the days of “beautiful letters” with Kim Jong-un) that if they kept threatening the U.S. with harsh rhetoric and missile tests, “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Trump was threatening to launch nuclear weapons not if North Korea attacked the U.S. but merely if he kept trying to develop the ability to do so. Around the same time, Bob Corker, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was likening the Trump White House to an “adult day care center” and fretting that Trump’s reckless threats were paving a “path to World War III.” Corker decided to hold the hearing because he was “riled up”—as he told a staffer—that Trump “has the power to basically destroy the world.”
The hearing—the first that Congress had held on the subject in 41 years—confirmed his fear. One of the witnesses, retired Gen. Robert Kehler, former StratCom commander, testified that the protocols call for the president to consult with several officers and officials before launching nuclear weapons; the officers would be obligated to inform him if his attack plan was illegal or disproportionate to the threat. However, Kehler admitted, after several rounds of questioning, that the president had no obligation to take the officers’ advice—that the decision would ultimately be up to the president, and only the president.
At the start of the session, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said, “Let me just pull back the cover for a minute from this hearing. We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making 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. Let’s just recognize the exceptional nature of this moment in the discussion that we are having today.”
Not a single senator, not even any Republicans, disputed Murphy’s premise.
In other words, nothing has changed since near the start of this president’s term. The existential worry that someone with Trump’s temperament holds the fate of the earth in his fingers was as potent three years ago as it is now. And yet, after this hearing, which lasted a mere three hours, the Senate took no action.
Sen. Edward Markey had drafted a bill to block the president from launching a nuclear first strike without congressional consent. The bill died without a vote. Other lawmakers and nuclear specialists have informally discussed requiring at least a majority of the Cabinet or the Joint Chiefs or somebody else besides the president to approve of a nuclear first strike. But the talk has gone nowhere, even with Trump in the Oval Office.
At the dawn of the republic, James Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 10, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” This was why he and the other founders devised checks and balances to a potential autocrat’s power—a legislature, judiciary, free press, and (they hoped) an educated public. Yet from the dawn of the nuclear age till now, no one has devised checks or balances to keep an “unenlightened statesman” from obliterating life on the planet.
It’s extremely unlikely that Trump will try to launch nukes in the final 12 days of his presidency, but several lawmakers, officials, and officers are worried that they don’t know what Trump might do. The possibility that he might do something destructive was what drove all 10 of the living former secretaries of defense to sign a Washington Post op-ed, reminding current officials and officers that it would be “dangerous, unlawful, and unconstitutional” for the military to play any role in settling a political election.
Their main fear was that Trump might call on the armed forces to extend his term of power. His former national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (who was later indicted, then pardoned), had recently (and incorrectly) claimed the president possessed the power to declare martial law and redo the election under military supervision. The secretaries were also concerned about Trump taking military action abroad. Shortly after the election, Trump had fired the top echelon of Pentagon civilians and replaced them with loyalists, some of them inexperienced ideologues. In mid-December, these new acting officials stopped meeting with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team. The former secretaries wondered: Was Trump planning something and relying on his lackeys to execute his orders out of sight?
One silver lining to Trump’s Jan. 6 incitement of an attempted insurrection is that more people in Congress, the armed forces, and elsewhere—including many erstwhile supporters—are on heightened alert. The report that Vice President Mike Pence authorized the Defense Department to send the National Guard to Capitol Hill—an act that the president would normally take—suggests that high officials are crafting workarounds to Trump’s powers in moments of urgency. (This isn’t a totally positive thing, by the way.)
But for as long as he’s president, Trump continues to possess powers like the world has never seen. If American politics calm down in the next few years, to the point where Republicans and Democrats can hold rational discussions, premised on a common reality (even if not common views), it might be good for Biden to lead a discussion on paring down these powers.