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

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  • RICHARD K. BETTS is Director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. MATTHEW C. WAXMAN is Liviu Librescu Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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