Executive Power

Does the Law Let Anyone Stop Trump from Starting a Nuclear War?

By Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes
Friday, August 25, 2017, 4:08 PM

On our Foreign Policy feed, we explain how the law protects the President's ability to start a nuclear war. The article begins:

President Donald Trump won a victory, at least a temporary one, in the simmering crisis on the Korean Peninsula recently when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un backed down on his threats to launch missiles into waters near Guam. The president tweeted that Kim “made a very wise and well reasoned decision. The alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!”

For many Americans, however, the North Korean climbdown was less significant than the alarming rhetoric from President Trump in response to North Korea’s missile development in the first place, rhetoric that all but explicitly threatened nuclear confrontation if the North Koreans continued making threats. We’ll leave it to others to debate whether Trump’s rhetoric was tactical or impulsive. The escalating war of words left many observers in the United States concerned not merely with North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles but also with difficult questions about Trump’s control over American nuclear arms.

“In a fit of pique, [if] he decides to do something about Kim Jong Un, there’s actually very little to stop him,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Wednesday after watching Trump’s speech in Phoenix the night before. “The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”

Indeed, it took the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, to remove from the news cycle vexing questions about the wisdom of placing the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal in the hands of a single individual — or, at least, of this single individual. How can a man who cannot responsibly manage a Twitter account hold the power to destroy the planet? How can a man who cannot convey a consistent message about anything convey a consistent message of nuclear deterrence to an unstable actor with nukes? How can a man as impulsive and vindictive as Trump have his finger, and solely hisfinger, on the proverbial nuclear button?

And unsurprisingly, since the North Korea flare-up began, there has been a flurry of talk about limiting the president’s authority over the nuclear arsenal. The talk raises a sticky set of questions: Is it actually possible to constrain the president’s power over nuclear launch? And if so, is it a good idea?