A few weeks after President Trump said from his New Jersey golf course in August that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury” for threatening the United States, a remark widely interpreted as referring to the use of nuclear weapons, a Fox News survey showed that most Americans view the president as erratic and unstable.
Trump’s bombastic rhetoric, combined with his continuing barrage of seemingly unhinged tweets, has raised considerable angst about the president’s sole authority to unleash the Pentagon’s 1,800 deployed nuclear weapons — a reality that cries out for some kind of reassurance that an impulsive president cannot simply wreak havoc on a whim.
“He concerns me,” Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last month, raising the prospect of World War III. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”
There is little debate that a U.S. president requires authority and speed to deliver overwhelming force should an adversary attack with nuclear weapons. The whole concept of nuclear deterrence, and the guarantee of mutually assured destruction, is based upon this. An intercontinental ballistic missile tipped with a nuclear warhead, such as the one North Korea is striving to develop, allows little time — perhaps 30 minutes — for the president to respond.
But what constrains the president from delivering a first strike? North Korea launched an ICBM on Wednesday, its first rocket test in two months and its most powerful one yet. Can Trump simply decide one day to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korea or some other target of his ire, or to escalate a conventional conflict into a nuclear one?
Some halting progress has been made in answering these questions, but more is necessary. A valuable public debate is unfolding on steps that might be taken to limit first-strike authority. And, earlier this month, for the first time in 41 years, a committee hearing was convened in Congress to review the process of using nuclear weapons, one that dates to the era of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.
The answers have been reassuring — to a degree. The challenge is to find a way to constrain a rash nuclear strike without tying the hands of future presidents or precluding them from standing up to the world’s bullies.
Several experts have argued for various legislative changes that would limit the president’s power to launch a first strike by requiring consent from other officials such as the Senate majority leader, or a combination of Cabinet and congressional leaders. But these ideas could easily run afoul of the constitutional designation of the president as sole commander in chief of the armed forces.
Other current and former Pentagon officials have offered assurances that even if Trump were to decide one day to fire a nuclear-armed missile at Pyongyang or elsewhere, any number of White House and Defense officials in disagreement could almost certainly dissuade him. Barring that, military leaders would be obliged to disobey Trump if his order was unlawfully unnecessary or disproportionate.
“He’ll tell me what to do and if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal’ ” and recommend other options, Air Force Gen. John Hyten said this month. Under the protocol command, Hyten, as head of the U.S. Strategic Command, would be the one to carry out such an order.