House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reached out to the US military about taking away President Trump’s nuclear authority, an ask that may seem reasonable on the surface, given the violence at the Capitol this week.
But she’s playing a dangerous game with America’s national security.
In a letter to House Democrats Friday, Pelosi told her colleagues that she’d just spoken to the Pentagon about ways to prevent an “unstable” President Donald Trump from launching a nuclear weapon in his remaining days in office.
“This morning, I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike,” Pelosi wrote.
She later told House Democrats on a call that Milley assured her there are safeguards in place to prevent the president from ordering an illegal nuclear strike, USA Today reported. (A Joint Chiefs spokesperson later confirmed that Milley had spoken with Pelosi: “Speaker Pelosi initiated a call with the Chairman. He answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority.”)
It’s understandable that his critics on the Hill — who were hunkered down in the belly of the Capitol while Trump’s supporters raided their offices Wednesday — would be tempted to snatch the president’s keys to the “red button.”
But the House speaker does not have the authority to try to keep the nuclear codes from Trump. Like it or not, the president of the United States has sole authority to launch a nuclear weapon.
Pelosi knows this full well — and that’s the point.
The move was political, a way to gin up support for the new Democratic push to impeach Trump over his incitement of the violence that occurred at the US Capitol on Wednesday. (The Washington insider newsletter Punchbowl reported Friday that some Republicans would be “sure to support the move” to impeach.)
Pelosi is a savvy political operator, and painting Trump as not just unhinged but an imminent threat to global security is certainly a way to heighten pressure on members of Congress to support impeachment.
But in this case, Pelosi is playing with literal fire.
Using the US nuclear command-and-control system for politics undermines the longstanding US approach to dissuading foreign adversaries from attacking the United States with nuclear weapons.
The president, as commander in chief, has sole authority to launch a nuclear weapon for an important reason: speed. In order to deter an adversary from launching nukes at the US, the thinking goes, they need to know that the US can send one (or more, potentially a lot more) right back at them, even before the enemy nukes get close to the US.
The idea is that knowing the US can obliterate a country no matter what, even if the US is attacked with nukes itself, will prevent a country from ever trying it.
But if the president has to stop and ask a whole bunch of other people for approval first before ordering a nuclear strike, or if there’s any confusion about who actually has the authority to do so, that could slow things down to the point that the US’s ability to respond quickly before it’s destroyed in a massive nuclear attack could disappear.
(Vox reached out to Pelosi’s office for comment but has not received a response.)
Why Pelosi’s comments are dangerous
The ability to quickly launch a nuclear weapon is at the heart of America’s nuclear deterrence strategy.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explains:
America’s nuclear system has been designed with an eye toward MAD — mutually assured destruction. That’s the idea that no country would nuke the United States first if it knew America would be able to launch a devastating response. Every US nuclear system is thus designed around establishing deterrence: making sure other countries can be certain that the US will be able to nuke them back no matter what.
If that certainty is lost — if the US’s ability to respond quickly to a nuclear attack by launching one of its own is in doubt — that deterrence effectively collapses.
US adversaries like Russia, China, and North Korea need to know that the US could launch a nuclear strike in minutes if need be, without any snags in the chain of command slowing things down or otherwise muddling the process.
The idea of Russia or China launching a nuke at the US right now for no reason other than they think they could get away with it because of Pelosi’s comments may seem far-fetched — and it is. There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest any country has a plan or desire to start a nuclear war with the United States in the next two weeks.
The real risk is the damage to the longer-term perceptions of the US nuclear command structure.
Pelosi can try to remove Trump from office. But as long as he’s in office, he controls the nukes.
Pelosi may not like President Trump. She may think he’s unstable or unfit for office. She may think he shouldn’t be trusted to control America’s vast nuclear arsenal. But like it or not, Trump, as president, does control that arsenal. Not the military, not the vice president, and certainly not the House speaker.
“So long as Trump remains in office, he retains the legal authority to solely launch some or all of America’s nuclear weapons until 12:01 pm on January 20, or until he is removed from office,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear security expert at MIT, told Vox. “Any ‘safeguards’ that could effectively prevent POTUS from exercising sole authority to launch nuclear weapons are either illegal or illusory.”
As House speaker, Pelosi can certainly try to have him removed from office (as it seems she is doing). What she emphatically can’t do is tell the military not to comply with a lawful order from the president of the United States to launch a nuclear weapon.
“We have a nuclear monarchy,” said Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a security foundation that tries to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, told Vox’s Lindsay Maizland for Vox in 2017. “Once [the president] gives the command, he cannot be overruled.”
Here’s how the system works:
1) The president decides a nuclear strike is necessary
It’s unlikely that the United States would turn to nuclear weapons as a first resort in a conflict. There are plenty of nonnuclear options available, such as launching airstrikes to try to take out an adversary’s nuclear arsenal.
But the United States has consistently refused to adopt a “no first use” policy. Trump could theoretically decide to launch a nuclear strike before an adversary’s nukes go off in America. In the heat of battle, the US military might detect an incoming nuclear attack from, say, North Korea, and the president could decide to respond with a similar strike.
Either way, the president is the one who ultimately decides to put the process of launching a nuclear strike in motion, but he still has a few steps to complete.
2) A US military officer opens the “football”
Once the president has decided the situation requires a nuclear strike, the military officer who is always by the president’s side opens the “football.”
The leather-clad case contains an outline of the nuclear options available to the president — including possible targets, like military installations or cities, that the US’s roughly 800 nuclear weapons ready to launch within minutes can hit — and instructions for contacting US military commanders and giving them orders to launch the missiles with warheads on them.
3) Trump talks with military and civilian advisers
The president is the sole decision-maker, but he could consult with civilian and military advisers before he issues the order to launch a nuclear weapon.
A key person Trump must talk to is the Pentagon’s director of operations in charge of the National Military Command Center, or “war room,” the heart of the Defense Department that directs nuclear command and control.
The president can include whomever else he wants in the conversation. He would almost certainly consult Adm. Charles “Chas” A. Richard, the commander of US Strategic Command (Stratcom), since Richard is responsible for knowing what the US can hit with its nuclear weapons.
Trump could also consult Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, and Gen. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in that conversation as well.
If any of the advisers felt such an attack would be illegal — like if Trump simply wanted to nuke North Korea or Iran despite no apparent threat — they could advise the president against going ahead with the strike.
What they can’t really do is overrule him.
Richard, the Stratcom commander, could also refuse to carry out the order if he felt it was illegal. But if he did so, Trump could just fire him and replace him with someone who would carry it out.
4) The president gives the official order to strike
After the conversation, a senior officer in the “war room” has to formally verify that the command is coming from the president using a series of alphanumeric codes.
Then members of the “war room” communicate with the people who will initiate and launch the attack. Depending on the plan chosen by the president, the command will go to US crews operating the submarines carrying nuclear missiles, warplanes that can drop nuclear bombs, or troops overseeing intercontinental ballistic missiles on land.
5) Launch crews prepare to attack
The launch crews receive the plan and prepare for attack. This involves unlocking various safes, entering a series of codes, and turning keys to launch the missiles.
Crews must “execute the order, not question it,” Cirincione told Maizland.
6) Missiles fly toward the enemy
It could take as little as five minutes for intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch from the time the president officially orders a strike. Missiles launched from submarines take about 15 minutes.
And then the president waits to see if they hit their target.
There is no reason to think Trump plans to randomly nuke anybody
It’s understandable that some might be nervous about what Trump could do in the remaining days of his presidency, angry, disgruntled, and with nothing left to lose.
Trump called on a rally of his supporters to march to the Capitol to demand Congress not certify the results of the election. He used language that encouraged violence, even if he didn’t outright call for it. That mob then turned violent and stormed the Capitol.
And as they rampaged and looted through the halls and offices of Congress, he refused to call them off after they’d already done significant damage. And when he did finally tell them to go home in peace, he also told them, “We love you. You’re very special.”
This is obviously not the behavior of a responsible person, let alone a responsible president. And it’s understandable that some would fear having a man that reckless in charge of a nuclear arsenal with the potential to destroy the world.
But egging on a crowd of unruly supporters is not the same as deliberately, knowingly, purposely launching a nuclear weapon that would kill tens of thousands of people. Or doing so outside of an active conflict or nuclear standoff, either.
The US military estimated that the atomic bomb it dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 killed about 70,000 people. That was just one bomb. And the weapons the US has today are far, far more powerful than the one used that day.
That doesn’t even take into account the numbers of Americans who would likely be killed in retaliation if the country Trump attacked also has nuclear weapons. Researchers at Princeton’s Science and Global Security Lab estimated in 2019 that even a “limited” nuclear war could cause 90 million casualties (meaning people killed or injured) in just a few hours.
There is no evidence that Trump wants to randomly nuke another country. In fact, he has long feared the prospect of nuclear war.
“I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process. It’s the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody’s focusing on the nuts and bolts of it,” Trump said in a 1990 interview with Playboy.
Trump has said many times that he learned about the destructive power of nuclear weapons at an early age from his uncle John, a professor at MIT who was a renowned scientific mind. “He was a brilliant scientist,” Trump said in another Playboy interview, this time in 2004, “and he would tell me weapons are getting so powerful today that humanity is in tremendous trouble. This was 25 years ago, but he was right.”
Even if a military conflict were to break out between the US and another country in the next two weeks before Trump leaves office, there’s still little evidence to suggest Trump would immediately respond with a nuclear weapon.
The most plausible conflict to erupt in that time span would probably be with Iran. But keep in mind that back in June 2019, Trump called off a planned strike on Iran meant as a response to the downing of a US military drone.
Trump tweeted his rationale for calling off the attack: “We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it,” Trump wrote. “[N]ot proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry.”
For Trump to consider using a nuclear weapon on Iran, then, Iran would probably have to launch a massive, deadly attack on America or its allies in the next two weeks.
Even if it did, Trump’s decision to attack in response would result from a conversation with top military and civilian officials, and there are plenty of conventional weapons available to Trump below the level of a nuclear weapon that he could order the military to use. That may not be much comfort, of course — an attack with conventional weapons can kill tens of thousands of people, too.
Still, that’s not a nuke.