David A. Andelman: It's terrifying that any one person, and especially President Trump, controls the nuclear codes
Congress should require that key officials be notified if Trump asks to open the nuclear football, he writes
Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” He formerly served as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his.
Regardless of who may be in the Oval Office, the stakes are too high, the potential outcome too horrific to leave the arsenal of the nuclear football entirely in the hands of any one president – especially President Donald Trump, who, according to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, asked during the campaign, “If we have them, why can’t we use them?”
As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN, “I worry about (his) access to nuclear codes, in a fit of pique, (if he) decides to do something about Kim Jong Un, there is actually very little to stop him.” And concern regarding Trump’s temperament seems to be shared quite widely among the American people. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 68% of those polled thought the President is not level-headed, compared with 29% who thought he is.
With Trump’s plan to streamline America’s nuclear arsenal, removing his sole thumb from the nuclear button is all the more urgent.
In short, it’s terrifying if this President does have full and solitary control of the nuclear football. The aluminum briefcase contained in a leather satchel, the entire 45-pound package carried by a rotating selection of military officers, follows the President everywhere. It holds the nuclear targets that he alone can activate using the biscuit, a small card that he carries on his person that bears the actual codes to launch all or part of the entire American strategic arsenal from anywhere on the globe where the commander in chief might find himself.
When he’s in the White House, the football is effectively non-operational, as the President orders the nuclear launch codes activated from the Situation Room in the basement where there is always full command authority – at least six staffers on duty 24/7 in five shifts. Still, if the President were to order a strike, while there may be more voices here that could be raised in opposition, his word is still the final authority.
The football was a product of the Kennedy administration when, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs disaster, the President thought it would be useful to have a means to retaliate quickly and efficiently if the United States were ever attacked by a nuclear power. In those days, that meant the Soviet Union. Today, Vladimir Putin is within range of his own football, the “Cheget,” wherever he travels.
At his command and fully accessible through the football, President Trump has more than 900 nuclear warheads with the force equivalent of some 17,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. As Franklin C. Miller, a nuclear specialist who worked for in the Department of Defense for 22 years, told The New York Times last year, “There’s no veto once the President has ordered a strike. The President and only the President has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.”
The solution to having one person with this amount of power, however, is potentially quite near at hand. As Politico reported, White House chief of staff “John Kelly is instituting a system used by previous administrations to limit internal competition – and to make himself the last word on the material that crosses the President’s desk.”
Specifically, White House staff secretary Rob Porter “will review all documents that cross the Resolute Desk,” Politico added. Well, why just documents? What about every time the President even looks cross-eyed at the football, or heaven forbid, orders it opened?
It is unquestionably a court-martial-worthy offense to refuse the President access to the football. The individuals chosen for this job are impeccably vetted for loyalty and sanity up to a special security level called Yankee White. But what if the military officer who carries it insists on telling John Kelly before allowing the President to access its contents? And the President refuses?
Clearly, any sentient individual should tuck it under his arm and flee immediately. What court would ever convict him? Still, there is a solution.
Congress should, quite simply, write this procedure into law: The bearer of the White House football, or anyone staffing the Situation Room in the White House, must communicate immediately with Kelly, national security adviser H.R. McMaster or Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at any moment Trump might order the football be opened.
There is already a bipartisan stamp on a legislative curb to one potentially volatile international action the President might be inclined to take – lifting, at his own discretion, sanctions on Russia. That measure passed both houses by overwhelming, veto-proof majorities, effectively compelling the President to sign it. A football bill should have equally overwhelming support.
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A decade ago, Vice President Dick Cheney warned ABC News that the President (at the time George W. Bush) “could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody. He doesn’t have to call the Congress; he doesn’t have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in. It’s unfortunate, but I think we’re perfectly appropriate to take the steps we have.”
What we really need, a decade and a far different administration later, is to take new steps to assure the American people, and the world, that they will not be held hostage by an individual in the grip of some personal or self-generated emotional crisis.