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Take Away Trump’s Power to Nuke First

Words: Will Saetren, Emily Jin
Pictures: Jonas Ericson

It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something about the American president’s totalitarian control of the US nuclear arsenal. It’s a problem that has flown under the radar for decades, but with Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, the time for immediate action has come.

Earlier this month, Senator Bob Corker, (R-TN) the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the New York Times that “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him [emphasis added].” He accused the president of treating his office “like a reality show,” and said that there was a very real possibility that Trump’s reckless threats towards other countries could set America “on the path to World War III.” “He concerns me,” the Senator said. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

Let that soak in for a minute. This isn’t your run of the mill Senator. This is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not to mention one of the most respected voices in his party on national security issues.

To make matters worse, Donald Trump seems to have little to no grasp of nuclear weapons policy. He has reportedly asked why the United States has nuclear weapons if they cannot be used. According to NBC, dismayed by a graph that showed the decline in US nuclear warhead numbers since its Cold War peak, Trump said he wanted a tenfold increase, an ask that would cost trillions of dollars, bankrupting the United States in spectacular fashion.

This man has absolute control over America’s nuclear arsenal and can launch the weapons on a whim. There is no proverbial red button he can push to unleash global armageddon, but he could do so in about as much time as it takes the average person to send a 140 character Tweet.

This is a fact that the vast majority of Americans are blissfully unaware of. According to a recent NPR/IPSOS poll, only 24 percent of Americans realize that the commander-in-chief has the full authority to unilaterally order a nuclear attack, without approval from a third party, such as Congress or the Secretary of Defense.

Nuclear weapons are often referred to as the president’s weapons, and for good reason.

Nuclear weapons are often referred to as the president’s weapons, and for good reason. The president determines the size and nature of the nuclear arsenal and establishes the operational requirements for the nuclear force. In non-technical terms, this means that the president gets to decide who gets blown up under what circumstances, and how the 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons in the US arsenal get divided up fairly amongst the bad guys. He is also the only person who gets to decide when, where and why they get used.

There is a dangerous myth that someone in the chain of command might refuse to obey the order to launch. A recent article in Newsweek cites a senior Pentagon source claiming that if confronted with the order, senior leaders, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, would talk Trump off the ledge, or resign rather than obeying the order.

That might be the case, but it is equally true that Trump could go on a rapid-fire rampage using his signature catchphrase, “you’re fired!” dispatching Mattis and Dunford, and proceeding down the chain of command until he finds a commander willing to carry out his orders. Even more likely, Trump could bypass them altogether. Historian Alex Wellerstein recently uncovered an Air Force document which spells it out pretty clearly: “The President may direct the use of nuclear weapons through an execute order via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the combatant commanders and, ultimately, to the forces in the field exercising direct control of the weapons [emphasis added].”

It is deeply ironic that in America, the power to unleash Armageddon is about as undemocratic as you can possibly get.

The current system is an anachronism of the Cold War that was brought about by necessity. For four decades the United States and the Soviet Union lived in constant fear of a surprise nuclear attack. By the time the incoming missiles would have been detected the window of opportunity to launch a counterattack would have shrunk to just six minutes. There simply wasn’t enough time to involve multiple actors in the process, so in the United States, the burden of ending human civilization as we know it fell squarely on the shoulders of the president.

But the Cold War ended more than 25 years ago and the USSR is a distant memory. The biggest nuclear threat now comes from rogue actors like North Korea, and America’s conventional, and second strike nuclear capabilities are more than sufficient to keep them at bay. Unfortunately, as with most things in Washington, changing the status quo is impossibly slow, and the president retains complete authority over America’s nuclear arsenal.

But Trump’s presidency might just be the wakeup call that Congress needs to wrest some of that power back from the executive branch.

Earlier this year, Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the “Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017,” which would do exactly that. The legislation requires a Congressional declaration of war before the commander-in-chief can initiate a first nuclear strike. While the president would retain the full authority to launch a nuclear counterattack, thus preserving the long-standing policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD), this legislation would significantly bolster global stability. Potential adversaries would be far less concerned about the prospect of an American surprise nuclear attack if doing so would require lengthy deliberation in the halls of Congress. In a crisis scenario, this removes a significant element of uncertainty, reducing the risk of a misunderstanding and conflict escalation.

Limiting the president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons is a win-win. In the long term, it strengthens America’s democracy and bolsters the system of checks and balances. In the short term, it removes the absolute power to initiate global annihilation from an erratic and unpredictable president, who is engaged in a war of words with the leader of North Korea, a demonstrated nuclear weapons state. Just as Trump’s behavior concerns Senator Corker, it should concern you too. Taking away his power to nuke first won’t solve the massive national security threat posed by Trump’s presidency, but it is a move that will allow us all to sleep better at night.

Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies where he specializes in nuclear weapons policy. Emily Jin is a research assistant at the Institute for China-America Studies. 

Will Saetren, Emily Jin

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