What Exactly Would It Mean to Have Egomaniac Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button?

donald_trump_screamingHe’s already said he wants to give nukes to Saudi Arabia, Korea, and Japan, and talked about nuking China.

The question of Donald Trump’s temperament and judgment on matters of war and peace is stirring attention—and trepidation, particularly when the subject of nuclear weapons comes up. Some people believe that Trump himself is the maniac, the madman with nukes that appears in Trump’s own worst nightmare. And it’s not just Trump’s general-election opponent, Hillary Clinton, who’s hinting at this; his former GOP rival, Marco Rubio, repeated his earlier concerns about Trump only this week, saying America can’t give “the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual.” Others would side with Trump’s view that the weapons themselves—which pack a destructive force amounting to “Hiroshima times a thousand,” as he put it—are the evil. But these points are not mutually exclusive.

What would it mean to have Trump’s fingers on the nuclear button? We don’t really know, but we do know this: In the atomic age, when decisions must be made very quickly, the presidency has evolved into something akin to a nuclear monarchy. With a single phone call, the commander in chief has virtually unlimited power to rain down nuclear weapons on any adversarial regime and country at any time. You might imagine this awesome executive power would be hamstrung with checks and balances, but by law, custom and congressional deference there may be no responsibility where the president has more absolute control. There is no advice and consent by the Senate. There is no second-guessing by the Supreme Court. Even ordering the use of torture—which Trump infamously once said he would do, insisting the military “won’t refuse. They’re not gonna refuse me”—imposes more legal constraints on a president than ordering a nuclear attack.

If he were president, Donald Trump—who likes to say he doesn’t spend a lot of time conferring with others (“My primary consultant is myself,” he declared in March)—would be free to launch a civilization-ending nuclear war on his own any time he chose.

The “nuclear button” is a metaphor for a complex apparatus that has the president’s brain at its apex. The image of a commander in chief simply pressing a button captures none of the machinery, people and procedures designed to inform the president and translate his or her decisions into coherent action. Although it remains shrouded in secrecy, we actually know a great deal about it, beginning with the president’s first task of opening the “nuclear suitcase” in an emergency to review his nuclear attack options. If we shine our light at the tactical and timing considerations of how a first- or second-strike attack would unfold, and at the inner workings of the nuclear decision process from the standpoint of the White House, we gain a much better idea of a presidential candidate’s fitness for this responsibility. And here it is essential to consider a candidate’s temperament and character—especially in situations of extreme stress. Decisiveness is important, but so is prudence.

Let us say the president is awakened in the middle of the night (the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call) by his or her top nuclear adviser and told of an incoming nuclear strike. Since the flight time of missiles fired from launch stations in [Iran,] Russia or China to the White House is 30 minutes, and 12 minutes or less for missiles fired from submarines lurking in the Western Atlantic Ocean (Russian subs historically favor a patrol area to the west of Bermuda), the steadiness and brainpower of the commander in chief in such circumstances are serious questions indeed. The voting public must ask whether a given candidate would remain calm—or panic, become discombobulated and driven to order an immediate nuclear response on the basis of false information.


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