The President and the Bomb

Reforming the Nuclear Launch Process

Hail Mary: carrying the "nuclear football" in Washington, D.C., February 2017. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

In November 2017, for the first time in 41 years, the U.S. Congress held a hearing to consider changes to the president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons. Although Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, insisted that the hearing was “not specific to anybody,” Democrats used the opportunity to air concerns that President Donald Trump might stumble into nuclear war. After all, he had threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea, and he subsequently boasted in a tweet about the size of the figurative “nuclear button” on his desk in the Oval Office. General C. Robert Kehler—a former head of U.S. Strategic Command, the main organization responsible for fighting a nuclear war—tried to calm senators’ fears about an irresponsible president starting such a war on a whim. He described how the existing process for authorizing the launch of nuclear weapons would “enable the president to consult with his senior advisers” and reminded the senators that officers in the chain of command are duty-bound to refuse an illegal order.

What Kehler could not assure the senators, however, was that the process that enabled the president to seek the concurrence of the secretary of defense or senior officers actually required him to do so, or even required that he consult with advisers. Nor could he assure them that officers receiving a launch order would dare to assert their own judgment over his about its legality, or that the president would listen to them if they did. When asked by Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, whether the president could ignore a military lawyer’s advice that an order to launch a nuclear attack was illegal, Kehler said that would present “a very interesting constitutional situation.” He continued: “I would say, ‘I have a question about this, and I’m not ready to proceed.’” Pressed by Cardin about what would happen next, Kehler responded, “Well, I don’t know.” The implication

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