If Trump Wants to Use Nuclear Weapons, Whether it’s ‘Legal’ Won’t Matter

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November 22, 2017
Alex Wellerstein, Avner Cohen

The following is an excerpt from The Washington Post.

No national decision is as consequential, irreversible and fateful as the decision to use nuclear weapons. In the United States the president, and only the president, has the authority to order the unleashing of nuclear weapons. This power is not given by the Constitution, nor any specific law. It results from a series of Cold War-era decisions made secretly by the executive branch and the U.S. military.

Which means recent statements by current and former four-star commanders of the Strategic Command — the branch of the military that would launch nuclear weapons were such a thing to happen — that the military would only carry out “legal” presidential orders to use nukes shouldn’t be particularly reassuring.

News coverage of these comments seemed to convey the idea that the military could be a fail-safe to prevent a nuclear launch, but the opposite remains true. Instead, they revealed what many of us outside the system have suspected for a long time: There are no “checks and balances” on nuclear launch decisions in any formal sense. There is no need for congressional authorization; there is no “two-man rule” for the decision to use the bomb; and although the process for initiating a nuclear attack spells out the need for “consultation” with officials such as the secretary of defense, they have no power to veto the order, and ultimately, their consent is not required. If President Trump wants to use one of the thousands of nuclear weapons in the U.S. military’s arsenal, the chance of anyone stopping him appears to be very low.

Both Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, and retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the commander from 2011 to 2013, have spoken recently about not following “illegal” orders to use nukes. Speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum last weekend, Hyten said he’d push back: “I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do,” he said. “And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”

Read the full article at The Washington Post.

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