World, Politics

‘And on this little card are the nuclear missile launch codes, President Trump’

By J Brooks Spector 7 August 2016

Does that thought make you start to sweat? J. BROOKS SPECTOR explores the questions around nuclear weapons control as a presidential transition comes ever closer, and as one of the possibilities is Donald J. Trump.

Every four years, once the two major parties’ presidential candidates have been formally confirmed by their respective parties, and as the clock ticks down to Election Day, those two candidates begin receiving daily CIA situation briefings. The purpose is to ensure that regardless of who wins, a candidate-turned-president-elect is not totally surprised or shocked by breaking events or important, but still-under-the-radar, trends in world affairs that will affect the new president’s first days in office.

Historians recall that when Vice President Harry Truman succeeded President Franklin Roosevelt, when the latter suddenly died in 1945 at the beginning of his fourth term, Truman had still been unaware of the imminent production of the country’s first atomic weapon in the Manhattan Project. In the post-war era, CIA briefings to the candidates have become standard issue to prevent just such surprises. Incumbent vice presidents now, of course, are routinely accorded the kinds of daily updates Truman had not had access to until after he became president. It was Truman who had initiated the first classified candidate briefings while he was president, in order to ensure – during the Cold War – that the transition to a new president did not include any major surprises to the incoming president.

The commencement of those briefings following the two party conventions encouraged New York Times columnist Nick Kristof to write one of the funniest bits of writing to come out of this year’s presidential election (unless readers are aficionados of Donald Trump’s stream-of-consciousness tweets). Kristof’s column owes more than a little to some famous Abbot and Costello comedy routines that play on words such as the “Who’s on First” classic skit, but also some of Trump’s own actual locutions. It is worth quoting at length as a satirical take on why candidates get their CIA briefings – as well as Donald Trump’s now-familiar conflation of some very dissimilar ideas and thoughts.

Kristof’s faux briefing goes like this:

Mr. Trump, I’m Gene Smith from the C.I.A.”

Smith, huh? Is that your code name? You know, I know a huge amount about the C.I.A., more than most C.I.A. directors. A terrific, beautiful, very good organisation.”

Actually, Smith is my real name. Anyway, let’s get started with China and our assessment that Xi is much more aggressive than Hu.”

She is more aggressive than who?”


Well, I’d like to meet her. I like aggressive women. She sounds like a 10.”


I don’t know. That aggressive woman.”

I’m not sure I understand. Anyway, in China we assess with high confidence that Xi will continue this aggressive nationalistic ——”

She sounds hot. No, I’m just joking. But, seriously, women love me.”

Mr. Trump, Xi is a man, president of China”….

Mr. Trump! We expect China will maintain its nationalistic claims in the South China Sea ——”

Oh, don’t worry. I have lots of Chinese friends. I love Chinese food. Best pad Thai in the world at Trump Tower. So what’s your take, what do the Chinese think of me?”

We assess with high confidence that the Chinese leadership wants you to win the election.”

I’m not surprised. There are very, very bad reporters at completely and totally failing newspapers that nobody reads who say I might start a trade war. But China wants me to win the election! Amazing! So why does she want me to win, that transsexual president of theirs?”

Xi is not trans! Xi would like you to win because alliance management is not your priority, and your presidency could lead to an unprecedented decline in US influence”….

Well, North Korea has already officially endorsed you, Mr. Trump. It called you ‘prescient’ and ‘wise.’ ”

“‘Present and wise!’ They love me! And Russia loves me, too. Putin and I go way back. We’re like this”— Trump knits his fingers together — “and after I’m elected I hope to finally meet him”….

Well, Putin believes that Nato might collapse in your presidency and that he would have a freer hand in Ukraine and the Baltics.”

The Baltics, I know them better than anybody! Melania is from Slovenia. Some people say I leaked those amazing pictures of her to The New York Post. Why would I do that? Did you see them? Here ——”….

Well, sir, the Middle East is complicated ——”

The Middle East is a complete and total disaster. They don’t respect us. What about nuclear weapons? If we have nukes, why not use ’em?”

Sir, we only offer intel, not policy advice. But ——”

Shouldn’t we just drop a few nukes on those Kurds?”

The Kurds? In Syria, they’re our only effective ally.”

They’re doing bad things. Very bad things. I saw it on a Sunday show.”

Oh, you mean … the Quds Force?”

Kurds, Quds, what’s the difference? If I give the order to bomb ’em, you guys can sweat the details. Call Mike Pence”….

The point of our (and Nick Kristof’s) exercise, of course, is that since the campaign began in earnest, among other things, The Donald has engaged in more than a few verbal assaults on the structure of nuclear deterrence. Along the way he has intimated the possibility that as president he just might authorise the use of such weapons in Europe or in battlegrounds in the Middle East against ISIS.

The theology of nuclear deterrence, of course, has evolved throughout the Cold War and on into the present. The general understanding is that because nuclear armed antagonists are equipped with such horrifically destructive weapons, if side A chose to use them to attempt to gain strategic advantage, then side B would retaliate in kind, rendering the planet uninhabitable and the initial attacker no better off than the other nation was after the nuclear exchange had taken place.

From the early days of the Cold War, the logic became codified into the graphically (and ironically) named strategy of “mutually assured deterrence and destruction” – or MADD. It is based on the assumption that no leader of a nuclear-armed state is so crazy as to launch the first attack, knowing what would inevitably follow. The system has – theoretically – became even more stable (as these things go), once the nuclear forces have come to be based on “the triad”: nuclear-armed, long-range manned bombers; nuclear-armed ICBMs housed in hardened, underground missile silos; and nuclear-powered submarines that could stay underwater for long periods (thereby becoming virtually invisible to reconnaissance and identification). These subs could launch their missiles in a nuclear counterstrike, even after a devastating attack on their operator’s homeland.

The increasingly problematic part of Trump’s public statements has been to speculate openly about using nuclear weapons as just another form of particularly deadly tactical choice, against ISIS, or even on a European battlefield. Now, marry that fuzzy thinking with the kinds of statements that have emanated from Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past several years and one has the makings of a loosening of the iron logic of MADD and the possibilities of unleashing nukes in a more casually defined way.

As the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer noted in a recently published article, “Over the past several years, Vladimir Putin and senior Russian officials have talked loosely about nuclear weapons, suggesting the Kremlin might not fully comprehend the awful consequences of their use. That has caused a degree of worry in the West. Now, the West has in Donald Trump – the Republican nominee to become the next president of the United States – someone who also talks loosely about nuclear weapons and nuclear use. That’s not reassuring.”

Pifer went on to write, “Mr Putin likes to talk publicly every now and then about Russia’s nuclear weapons. Two years ago, he reminded a summer youth camp audience that Russia was a nuclear superpower – as if anyone needed reminding. With a nuclear arsenal believed to number some 4,500 weapons, Russia matches the size of the US arsenal and has 15 times as many nuclear weapons as any third country. Kremlin propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik regularly post articles crowing about new Russian strategic weapons developments to make sure no one forgets.”

Moreover, Putin put his nation’s nuclear forces on a higher level of alert as it seized Crimea. Then, Pifer added, “Last year, the Russian ambassador in Copenhagen threatened that Russia would target nuclear-armed missiles against Denmark. Ambassadors usually don’t say such things. Such talk apparently filtered down from the top.”

Pifer also pointed out that, heretofore, at least since the end of the Cold War, American leaders’ language has routinely been in terms of reducing weapons numbers (albeit even as the country is moving towards a significant nuclear weapons refurbishment programme) and in reducing their role in overall US security policy. Speaking of incumbent President Obama, Pifer notes, for example, “He does not appear to see much need to remind the world that the United States has lots of nuclear bombs. It is difficult to believe that Mr. Obama would use nuclear weapons unless they were first used against the United States or an American ally. You could probably say that about every US president since Dwight Eisenhower.”

But then there has been The Donald. As MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough said, “Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump. And three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point, if we had them, why can’t we use them.” While Trump has denied offering precisely that phrasing, nevertheless he publicly said something very similar in a candidate town hall that took place some five months ago. Pifer explained, “In a March town hall, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews observed that most people don’t want to hear about possible nuclear weapons use, especially from American presidents. Mr Trump responded: ‘Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?’ ”

And in another March interview, Trump refused to take off the table the option of using tactical nuclear arms against ISIS. The question, of course, is what conceivable use could that involve. Was Trump thinking of incinerating an ISIS-occupied city and in the process turning thousands of unlucky Syrians, Iraqis or Kurds into atomic ash in order to take out a few thousand ISIS fighters lurking in the rubble?

Pifer’s deeply depressing conclusion about a man who is vying to become the next leader of the United States, and someone with daily access to those nuclear launch codes, is, “Mr. Trump’s remarks make clear that he does not understand much about nuclear strategy. He also does not understand the weapons themselves. The foundation for U.S. nuclear deterrence is the strategic triad: submarine-launched ballistic missiles, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers. When the question came up at Republican debate last year, Mr. Trump’s confused answer suggested that he had no clue what the triad is.”

Despite the Russian president’s apparent favouritism towards Donald Trump (and the possibility that Russia is even stirring the pot with electronic espionage against the Democratic Party), Pifer offered, “The Kremlin leadership, however, might consider this: Does it really want someone with Mr. Trump’s irresponsible attitude toward all things nuclear holding the U.S. launch codes?” Although, just to keep some confusion going, Trump has also said things like, “It is highly, highly, highly, highly unlikely that I would ever be using them,” to GQ magazine. So, who really knows what this man thinks about nuclear weapons.

The growing debate about whether a man with Trump’s temperament would be able to shoot off a few megatons of nuclear fist-shaking – just because – has led some analysts to look at the actual nature of the restraints on the employment of nuclear weapons by a president, regardless of whether or not the chief executive was in a good frame of mind or out of his.

There are sobering films about this question from Failsafe to Dr Strangelove, but what about in real life? William Broad and David Sanger, writing in The New York Times the other day, noted, “…Is there any check on a president’s power to launch nuclear arms that could destroy entire cities or nations? The short answer is no, though history suggests that in practice, there may be ways to slow down or even derail the decision-making process. No one disputes, however, that the president has an awesome authority.

Watch: The ending of Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – (1964)

If the United States appeared to be under nuclear assault, the president would have minutes to decide whether the threat was real, and to fire as many as 925 nuclear warheads with a destructive force greater than 17,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to estimates by Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington.

The commander-in-chief can also order the first use of nuclear weapons even if the United States is not under nuclear attack. ‘There’s no veto once the president has ordered a strike,’ said Franklin C. Miller, a nuclear specialist who held White House and Defence Department posts for 31 years before leaving government service in 2005. ‘The president and only the president has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.’”

However, actual details of the nuclear launch chain of command remains classified, including the question of whether or not a senior member of the chain of command could conceivably stop a presidential order to use nuclear weapons – if, for example, that official had become convinced the man who had given the order had become ill, had truly lost the plot or had come, well, let’s say it, totally unglued.

In contrast to Trump’s idle and less than focused thoughts on the employment of nuclear weapons, over a decade ago, Hillary Clinton had already set out a public record about the employment of nuclear weapons that largely comported to the broad understanding of MADD theology. At that time she had said presidents “should be careful at all times in discussing the use and non-use of nuclear weapons”, adding she would not address hypothetical questions. Cautious. But she added, “Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrents to keep the peace, and I don’t believe any president should make blanket statements with the regard to use or non-use.”

And before running against then-Senator Obama for the Democratic nomination, in response to how the US should confront the Iranian nuclear project, she had said, “I would certainly take nuclear weapons off the table. This administration [Bush II] has been very willing to talk about using nuclear weapons in a way we haven’t seen since the dawn of a nuclear age. I think that’s a terrible mistake.”

Sanger and Broad went on to explain, “The president’s authority over nuclear decision-making challenges the constitution’s clear declaration that only Congress holds the power to declare war. In practice, the arrival of the nuclear age dismantled the traditional rules by rewriting the timelines of war. It would take 12 minutes or less for weapons fired from submarines to reach Washington, and 30 minutes for warheads from most intercontinental missiles. Bombs dropped by aircraft, if they could pierce the country’s air defences, would take only hours. As a result, Congress began delegating the powers of nuclear war-fighting to the president, starting with Harry S. Truman — the only president who has ever ordered a nuclear strike against another nation.”

In fact, there have been some awkward blurred moments – as during the Nixon administration – when top officials tried to slow, or undermine, the president’s nuclear authority. Broad and Sanger explained, “The first came in October 1969, when the president ordered Melvin R. Laird, his secretary of defence, to put American nuclear forces on high alert to scare Moscow into thinking the United States might use nuclear arms against the North Vietnamese. Scott D. Sagan, a nuclear expert at Stanford University and the author of ‘The Limits of Safety’, a study of nuclear accidents, said Mr. Laird tried to ignore the order by giving excuses about exercises and readiness, hoping that the president who sometimes embraced the ‘madman theory’ – let the world think that you are willing to use a weapon – would forget about his order.” And, in fact, one of the B-52 bombers employed in that exercise apparently came close to an accident.

More ominously, in 1974, as Richard Nixon was embroiled in the final days of Watergate and had begun drinking excessively, his aides felt he was becoming increasingly emotionally unstable. Broad and Sanger note, “His new secretary of defense, James R. Schlesinger, himself a hawkish Cold Warrior, instructed the military to divert any emergency orders — especially one involving nuclear weapons — to him or the secretary of state, Henry A. Kissinger. It was a completely extralegal order, perhaps mutinous. But no one questioned it. ‘Although Schlesinger’s order raised questions about who was actually in command,’ Eric Schlosser writes in Command and Control, a 2013 book, ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time.’”

Still, the question of retaliatory use after, say, a single first strike on one city or major military facility, as in the Tom Clancy thriller, The Sum of All Fears, is even more difficult to parse out. How does a president (whether he or she is American, Russian, Indian, Chinese or Pakistani) and the respective chain of command judge the appropriate response to such an event, given the agonies that would have been inflicted already on their country?

Such questions really need to be debated more thoroughly. This is especially true, now that the question of the use of nuclear weapons in a rather casual way has already been broached by Donald Trump in some of his more off-the-cuff comments. This is serious stuff and it damn well needs to be a major line of questioning in whichever presidential debate (either on 26 September, 9 October or 19 October, or in the vice presidential one on 4 October) is designated to cover national security and foreign policy issues. DM


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