Of all the things Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has tweeted, stated or outright lied about, it was the news this week that he asked about using nuclear weapons that attracted the attention of the national security community.
Perhaps he was just curious when he reportedly asked three times in a one-hour briefing with a foreign policy advisor why, if the U.S. has nuclear weapons, it doesn’t use them? The answer to anyone with even a few minutes’ worth of national security experience is obvious: to keep millions, even billions, of people alive.
Regardless, Trump’s nuclear interest has raised questions about just how much danger the nation would be in should it elect a president hell bent on launching a strike. On Thursday, Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat representing the Los Angeles area, released a statement saying he would introduce legislation that required Congress to be a part of a nuclear decision.
But if that fails, defense officials and experts say, there’s always the old fashioned way of corralling a president with a screw loose. As it turns out, the national security apparatus deploys the same measures many of us do when a boss makes an unreasonable request: delay, distract, and hope the order passes.
Legally speaking, the authority to launch nuclear strikes rests almost exclusively with the president. While the Secretary of Defense must sign off on the deployment of such weapons, he/she has no veto power.
“I plan to introduce legislation that requires the concurrence of leaders in Congress—who are not beholden to the President—before a nuclear strike can be launched,” Lieu said in his statement. “We can no longer have the fate of civilization depend on just two people in the Executive Branch.”
Trump could order the armed forces to nuke ISIS—or Mexico, if they refuse to pay for that darned wall. Such an order may even be legal (well, probably not in the Mexican scenario).
But in the halls of the Pentagon, there’s an assumption that things will never get so bad. There is a presumption that should Trump propose using such weapons, every delay tactic possible, coupled with an unprecedented international outcry, would stop it. Others, both inside and outside the United States, would argue that morally, the US cannot do it. It is a disproportionate response to the ISIS threat and would end up killing masses of civilians, not just terrorists, making it a war crime.
“There would be an effort to slow roll. The Secretary of Defense may threaten to quit. I think that would be your check,” Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, explained to the Daily Beast. Less clear is what the nuclear response would be if the U.S. suddenly discovered missiles were headed its way.
The more immediate worry, U.S. officials said, are Trump’s promises to kill terrorists’ families or waterboard jihadi suspects. That is, the grey area of modern non-nuclear warfare.
“I can’t think of a scenario in which we are talking about nuclear war” in the post-Cold War period, one U.S. official explained to the Daily Beast. “But in our recent history, we have already arguably stretched the law once.”
A president determined to launch a non-nuclear, military operation is often aided by compliant generals, intelligence officials and the lawyers who deem presidential directives legal, three U.S. officials explained to The Daily Beast.
“Once you find a lawyer to say it is legal, it is hard to stop,” a second U.S. official said. “What if Trump finds lawyers who sign off on his ideas?”
And that has officials worried most. There have been instances in recent history where a motivated White House has found the very people it needed to carry out its national security plans.
It was a lawyer, John Yoo, for example who declared the George W. Bush administration’s torture methods legally sound, opening the door for waterboarding. Two days into his administration, President Obama signed an executive order that revoked every legal justification. Last month, John Brennan, the CIA director, said he would resign before he would reinstate waterboarding as Trump has suggested.
But there are also longstanding safety measures—and a precedent for a kind of passive-aggressive resistance to the president within the national security community. Most notably, the national security team around President Richard Nixon repeatedly made up excuses to not launch strikes. The president was seen as temperamental and, some believed, increasingly unhinged by the Watergate scandal. In September 1970 as the Palestine Liberation Organization sought to overthrow the regime of King Hussein of Jordan, known as Black September, Nixon ordered the generals to “bomb the bastards.” Instead, the generals came up with an excuse.
“They would always say it was the weather. There are too many clouds,” Ray Locker, who authored Nixon’s Gamble: How a President’s Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration, explained to the Daily Beast. Delaying bombing orders “was a hallmark of his White House. They would let Nixon vent his frustration and let it slide. They would hope the next day he forgot about it.”
Government officials are required to not comply with an order that violates the law, even if that means defying a presidential order. Moreover, rarely does a president simply declare the U.S should conduct a strike. Rather, it comes to the president up the chain in a series of recommendations. And those take time to make their way up the bureaucracy.
Once presented, the decision is usually made among many people, which takes time. And then the lawyers must determine if a decision is legally allowed, which of course takes more time.
And then those carrying out the orders must develop the plans to do so. One decision could come up against the bureaucracies of the Pentagon, a general in the area of the world where a strike would happen, and the intelligence community, for example.
During a March debate, Trump said he would force the military to carry out acts that violated international law: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me,” he said. “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”
He later backed down and sought to reassure those concerned that his presidency could take the United States into uncharted military campaigns.
Trump said then that he understood “that the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters.”
And when law, reason and delay tactics have failed, officials have used more, shall we say, creative solutions to keep unstable presidents in check.
In the final years of the Nixon’s administration, then Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, were the key decision makers on strike decisions. Indeed, during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, officials around Nixon raised the nuclear warning level to DEFCON 3 in an effort to stop Russian escalation in the region—and didn’t even tell Nixon, Locker recalled.
“Nixon was at Camp David. Kissinger calls [then chief of staff Alexander] Haig and asks ‘Should we tell the president?’ And Haig said ‘no,’” Locker said. “They told him about it the next day.”