The nuclear button: What if Trump pushes it?
Let’s say President Trump gets really mad one morning while watching Fox News and decides to launch a nuclear strike against North Korea. Would anything or anyone be able to stop him? asked Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. The answer, it seems, is probably not. Last week, Congress held hearings to re-examine the nuclear chain of command—the first time it’s done so in 41 years. The testimony was not comforting. To order an attack, officials and experts testified, all Trump “has to do is call in the military officer who carries the ‘football,’ the bulky briefcase containing the nuclear codes,” and transmit launch orders to U.S. Strategic Command. A minute or so later, a barrage of nuclear missiles would be launched. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said the hearing wasn’t designed to single out this president. But given Corker’s well-publicized complaints about Trump’s recklessness and instability, “nobody was fooled.”
We did learn, however, that the military might not blindly follow a nuclear-launch order, said Robert Burns and Richard Lardner in the Associated Press. The current head of Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, later said that “he would refuse a launch order from a president if he believed that order to be illegal,” such as an unprovoked nuclear first strike. But Hyten admitted it was not clear what would happen then, said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. Trump could simply circumvent any objecting general; in addition, military lawyers have compiled a book of legal justifications for “almost any sort of nuclear attack that a president might want to order.”
That should concern us all, said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. “Leaving complete authority to vaporize entire cities in the hands of one person has always been a risk,” but it’s truly alarming when that one person is so impulsive and vengeance-driven. Maybe it made sense to give the president total launch authority during the Cold War, “when strategists worried that the Soviet Union, with thousands of missiles, would wipe out our entire nuclear arsenal with a surprise attack.” But a rogue state like North Korea can’t wipe out our arsenal. Democrats have introduced legislation requiring the president to get a declaration of war from Congress before ordering a first strike; for partisan reasons, the bill doesn’t seem likely to pass. So for now, we’ll have to hope that Trump “won’t succumb to the temptation to press the ultimate button.” ■