Trump Still Has His Finger on the Nuclear Button. This Must Change
Politico.com | #PRESS
William J. Perry, Tom Z. Collina
The time has come to take the nuclear football away from this president-and all the presidents that come after him
Anyone who watched the disturbing events on Capitol Hill and President Donald Trump’s outrageous role as ringleader of the riot, must comprehend a crucial and terrifying fact: The president of the United States is unhinged and a threat not only to democracy, but to our survival. The danger is so acute that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is actively looking for ways to prevent the “unstable president from … accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike."
Unfortunately, under existing policy the only sure way to safeguard the nuclear arsenal from an unstable president is not to elect one. Once in office, a president gains the absolute authority to start a nuclear war. Within minutes, Trump can unleash hundreds of atomic bombs, or just one. He does not need a second opinion. The Defense secretary has no say. Congress has no role.
As a nation, we need to ask ourselves: Why are we taking this risk? Do we really think that Trump is responsible enough to trust him with the power to end the world?
But here’s the even bigger question: Do we really think any president should have the godlike power to deliver global destruction in an instant? By now, it should be clear that no one person should have the unilateral power to end our civilization. Such unchecked authority is undemocratic, outdated, unnecessary and extremely dangerous.
It’s time to get rid of the nuclear football. It’s no longer necessary, and its very existence is a danger to our national security.
How did we get here? It started 75 years ago, when President Harry Truman saw the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and determined not to use the atomic bomb again. To him, that meant keeping it out of military hands. So Truman declared that no more atomic bombs could be dropped unless he personally authorized it. By doing so, Truman set the dangerous precedent of one-person control. Atomic bombs became “the president’s weapons” and sole authority was reinforced as both the United States and the Soviet Union deployed ballistic missiles able to span the globe in 30 minutes or less.
As a result, for the past five decades, every president has traveled with a briefcase known as the “nuclear football” containing the codes that will allow the president-on his sole authority-to order the launch of the nuclear arsenal. Yet the awesome ability to launch hundreds of thermonuclear weapons in mere minutes came with grave dangers. Would any president be able to make a wise decision under such crushing time pressures? What if it were a false alarm? How would the president know? And what if the president was mentally unstable?
We came close to blundering into nuclear war several times during the Cold War. False alarms, in particular, are a real and growing concern. Today false alarms are even more likely because our weapons and warning systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks like the recent SolarWinds hack by Russia. If the president launches nuclear weapons in response to a false alarm, he would start World War III-by mistake.
Clearly, Trump’s blatant efforts to undermine democracy and disenfranchise millions of voters show an extreme lack of judgment and inability to promote the public good. Trust Trump with the bomb? Hardly.
And yet we have entrusted him with sole authority for four long years. The fact that he had not chosen to use nukes does not mean it was a good idea to give him this unilateral power in the first place. It wasn’t. And if we are lucky enough to survive the next two weeks and hand that power to a much more trustworthy president, that does not mean that we no longer need to fix this problem.
As much as we might hope, we cannot assume that we will never have another president as unqualified and unhinged as Trump. It is tempting to think that Americans have learned a lesson and will not repeat this mistake. But we cannot rest the fate of the world on such a fantasy. There are numerous politicians who are right now competing to be Trump’s political heir. Trump himself could possibly run again, and his children have political ambitions.
Trump is not the first president to trigger these concerns. There is always some chance that a president, at the moment it matters, might be delusional (like Trump), drink to excess (like Richard Nixon), or engage in some other activity that could cloud his or her judgment. Presidents, like all of us, make mistakes.
Luckily, we don’t need to take such risks. It’s no longer necessary to make a nuclear use decision quickly, and here’s how President-elect Joe Biden can get there.
First, once in office, Biden should announce he would share authority to use nuclear weapons with a select group in Congress. He should also declare that the United States will never start a nuclear war and would use the bomb only in retaliation.
Second, to make that pledge more credible, Biden should retire the land-based ballistic missiles that are stationary and more vulnerable to be taken out in a first strike-which could force a president into a quick “use-them-or-lose-them” decision. These missiles are not needed for deterrence, which is ensured by survivable submarine-based weapons. We can and should get out of the “use-them-or-lose-them” mindset.
On Jan. 20, if all goes well, the nation and the world can breathe a giant sigh of relief. Once Biden is sworn in as president, the nuclear football will be his. It will then be up to Biden to retire the football and ensure that we never again entrust the most powerful killing machine ever created to just one fallible human.