That terrifying question, often asked worriedly, privately or rhetorically over the last months, is echoing ever more loudly this week after President Trump insulted another inexperienced authoritarian nuclear commander, North Korea's Kim Jong-un.
The U.S. nuclear command and control system, established in 1946, was designed to keep nuclear decisions out of the hands of war-mongering generals and put them in the hand of elected civilians leaders. As a result, a juvenile president has the authority to unleash thousands of nuclear weapons within minutes. There are some 4,000 nuclear warheads under Trump's control.
Earlier this week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the command and control of nuclear weapons for the first time in 41 years.
“We are concerned that the president is so unstable, 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,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn).
Sen. Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.), chairman of the committee, acknowledged that senators, including Democrats and Trump’s fellow Republicans, have raised questions about Trump’s authority to wage war, use nuclear weapons and enter into or end international agreements. Last month Corker worried aloud that Trump might be putting the United States "on the path to World War III."
William Perry, Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, who said he was "terrified" by trends in nuclear proliferation before Trump took office, says the American people cannot count on Trump’s advisers from restraining him in a crisis.
Perry says he knows and speaks with James Mattis, Trump’s defense secretary, and he thinks Mattis understands the nuclear threat well. But as Perry told Politico this week, he also doesn’t think Mattis would necessarily be able to do anything if Trump decided to go ahead with a strike.
“The order can go directly from the president to the Strategic Air Command. The defense secretary is not necessarily in that loop. So, in a five- or six- or seven-minute kind of decision, the secretary of defense probably never hears about it until it’s too late. If there is time, and if he does consult the secretary, it’s advisory, just that,” Perry explained. “Whether [the president] goes with it or doesn’t go with it—[the secretary] doesn’t have the authority to stop it.”
Retired Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command from 2011-'13, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he would have refused to carry out a nuclear first strike on presidential orders if he believed it did not meet the requirements of proportionality and necessity under the law of armed conflict. “I would have said, I’m not ready to proceed,” Kehler said.
After the hearing, Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told the Guardian, "I don’t have confidence that a military chain of command would reject an order by the president to launch nuclear weapons in a preventative nuclear war situation.”
Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have a solution: legislation to bar the president from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. The president would, of course, still have the power to retaliate if America was attacked, but the bill could help restrain a trigger-happy president.
“I do not see a legislative solution today,” Corker said, after the hearing, "but that doesn’t mean that over the course of the next several months one might develop.”
The obstacles to meaningful action to restrain a madman are many. The first is Trump’s egomania. Perhaps in deference to Trump’s thin-skinned personality, Corker took care to say his hearing was not about Trump.
“This is not specific to anybody,” Corker felt obliged to say, lest the president take the issue personally.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the same thing last month when she called for legislation to bar the president from using nuclear weapons unless the United States is attacked first.
“It has nothing to do with him,” she said. “It has to do with the presidency — any president who is there.”
A second problem is that, over the last 75 years, Congress has ceded its constitutional power to declare war to the Executive Branch. The last time Congress approved a declaration of war was 1942 when the United States was moving against Nazi-controlled Romania.
There was no declaration of war for Korean, Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War, or the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Once Congress cedes a power to the president, it is hard to take it back. The best hope is that Congress is becoming scared enough to act. The willingness of Corker, a senior Republican, to at least contemplate legislation to control Trump at some point, is a welcome sign of progress, however slight.
“I put this in the category of urgent," Pelosi said. “We each take an oath to protect and defend. If Congress doesn’t act, we might wake up to a mushroom cloud and the nightmare of 'It’s too late.'"