Calls to impeach Trump or invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from office touch only tangentially on our deepest anxieties about what further damage he might do between now and January 20th. To cut to the heart of the matter, chief among the many reasons to be biting our nails now, Trump has the nuclear “Gold Codes,” and Congressional and military stopgaps are inadequate to restrain him if he decides to use them.
In a consultation with me this week, former Secretary of Defense William Perry described the present predicament this way: “Trump still has ‘sole authority’ to launch, and the military have no authority to stop him, unless they have reason to believe the order is illegal. That is cold comfort, because it is unlikely that the military would question whether a valid order from the president is ‘legal.’ However, in the present circumstances, questioning would certainly be in order.”
Military training and precedent argue against questioning a direct order from the Commander in Chief, even a nuclear strike order. There is no way to know on whose watch an order might come, or whether they would indeed resist. There is no sufficient institutional check on presidential nuclear authority, and no fast-track way to set up some sort of emergency restraint on Trump.
That’s our situation while Trump’s term lasts. Neither impeachment or the 25th Amendment are likely to shorten it, though they are warranted and should be pursued. Trump’s shameless, disingenuous January 7th “love and unity” speech was designed to make both propositions tougher so he can run out the clock, and he probably will. The House has prepared an article of impeachment, but Trump won’t be convicted in the Senate until after January 20th, if ever. In the mean time, we are reduced to trusting that his innate rationality and morality will keep his finger off the button while he remains in office.
This is a president who advanced crazy, immoral lies, conspiracies, and illusions to incite violent acts of sedition. That either demonstrates mental incompetence and a harrowing disconnect from reality, or the calculated, sophisticated, treasonous staging of a coup. It doesn’t much matter which one it is. Whether he’s mentally or morally incompetent (or both), it’s all too easy to imagine Trump launching nuclear weapons, and initiating the destruction of civilization. He’s not only a threat to American security and democracy; he’s a threat to the world.
This was evident long before the clarifying events of the past week. Throughout his presidency, Trump lied and manipulated to advance his own selfish interests, in derogation of national unity, world security, public health, and the rule of law. His conduct has been consistent. He has been preoccupied with staying in power while the pandemic rages and fast approaches the milestone of killing more Americans than World War II. Why should we have any confidence in his moral compass?
We need to face the fact: Donald Trump is immoral or irrational, or both, and in command of an arsenal of 5,800 nuclear weapons. He has the power to instigate first use of nuclear weapons—unilaterally, without consulting with or explaining anything to anyone. This undermines the stability of the United States and threatens humanity itself.
Clearly, Trump shouldn’t have this power. In fact no one, not even a sane, mature, wise person, should have it. JFK warned that the slender thread suspending the nuclear sword of Damocles over humanity’s head could easily be broken by “accident, miscalculation or madness.” In fact, it nearly was broken on JFK’s watch, and Donald Trump is no JFK.
Nor can Trump be compared to President Reagan, who said, “Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?” He reached a rational conclusion: “To me it was simple common sense: A nuclear war couldn’t be won by either side. It must never be fought.” So Reagan and Gorbachev sought universal, verifiable, legally enforceable elimination of nuclear weapons. That not only helped end the Cold War, it reduced the world’s nuclear arsenal from over 70,000 weapons to fewer than 14,000 today.
Trump doesn’t even compare favorably to Nixon, who in the last days of his presidency alarmed his defense secretary when he said, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.”
How can any person be entrusted with such power? The insanity of Trump having it, even now, demonstrates the truth of what President Obama said in his 2009 Prague speech: we need “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons…We, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change.”
Obama believed that it would take time to achieve that more secure world. Meanwhile, legislation to prohibit first use of nuclear weapons by the United States has wisely been proposed by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Representatives Ted Lieu and Adam Smith. It would prevent future presidents from initiating nuclear war, and build trust with other nuclear states. It should be passed by the next Congress and signed by President Biden as soon as possible.
On his first day in office, President Biden could change U.S. nuclear policy from its current unconstrained posture to one of “sole purpose,” i.e. the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter a nuclear attack, or in other words, to insure nuclear weapons won’t be used. This doesn’t preclude retaliating against a nuclear attack if deterrence fails. It’s a modest step forward, but one we can take right away. Among the many things Trump has thrown into sharp relief is the urgency of getting started on a safer, saner path toward a nuclear weapons-free world.
Jonathan Granoff is president of the Global Security Institute and representative of the World Summits of Nobel Peace Laureatesto the United Nations. He chairs the Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation of the International Law Section of the American Bar Association, and is a fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Science. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.