Here, in a nutshell, are the laws and procedures that limit President Donald Trump’s power to launch a nuclear strike against North Korea anytime he likes:
There aren’t any.
If the president wakes up one morning, turns on Fox News and decides that Kim Jong Un has ignored his warnings of “fire and fury” — by announcing, for example, that he has built a nuclear warhead that can reach California — Trump can annihilate the people of North Korea entirely on his own.
He isn’t required to consult his secretary of Defense and other advisers, although that would be a good idea. He isn’t required to ask Congress for permission, either, even though the Constitution reserves the power to declare war for the legislature.
Trump can annihilate the people of North Korea entirely on his own.
All he has to do is call in the military officer who carries the “football,” the bulky briefcase containing the nuclear codes, and work through a brief procedure to transmit launch orders to U.S. Strategic Command.
“There are really no checks and balances,” said Bruce G. Blair, a former nuclear launch control officer who is now a researcher at Princeton University. “The presidency has become a nuclear monarchy.”
The streamlined procedure was designed during the Cold War for speed and certainty, in case Washington was in imminent danger of destruction by a Soviet attack. It relies, to an astonishing extent, on the judgment and steadiness of just one person. It wasn’t designed for a case like North Korea: a small nuclear power with the power to threaten but not destroy the United States. Nor, of course, was it designed for a president like Trump, whose temperament tends toward impulsiveness.
And that’s why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened on Tuesday to discuss whether the rules need to change — the first time in 41 years that Congress has reexamined the doomsday procedures.
The chairman of the panel, Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said the inquiry wasn’t aimed at one president in particular. “This is not particular to anybody,” he claimed.
But since Corker has frequently complained that Trump lacks the competence and stability to be president, and once described the White House as “an adult day-care center,” nobody was fooled.
“Let’s just recognize the exceptional nature of this moment,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. “We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, so volatile … that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.”
Needless to say, the senators didn’t arrive at any kind of consensus.
Murphy and other Democrats argued that Congress needed to take action to rein in the president. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and other Republicans fretted about the danger of weakening nuclear deterrence or reducing “strategic ambiguity” by limiting Trump’s freedom to bluster.
A former commander of U.S. nuclear forces, retired Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, told the committee that military officers could prevent a disaster by objecting to an order they considered illegal. But he acknowledged that objecting wouldn’t stop the order from being carried out. Instead, he said dryly, it would lead to “a very difficult conversation.”
Blair, the nuclear scholar, has suggested requiring more than one signature on a nuclear war order — ideally, the secretary of Defense and the attorney general as well as the president. Every other step in launching nuclear weapons, he noted, holds to a “two-man rule,” requiring two people to concur; only the decision to begin a nuclear war is given to just one person.
Some Democrats, including Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Ted Lieu of Torrance, have proposed requiring that a president obtain authorization from Congress before using nuclear weapons, except in response to a nuclear attack.
That’s not a crazy idea. It wouldn’t bind a president’s hands in a genuine emergency. It’s been endorsed by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, a nuclear technologist who was willing, during the Clinton administration, to go to war against North Korea. (Diplomacy made that war unnecessary, he says.)
Apparently, however, that constitutional remedy is a bridge too far for most. Markey has collected only 13 cosponsors for his bill, all Democrats — just one-third of his party’s members in the Senate.
That leaves the senators united in a single sentiment: wishing they had a less volatile president to worry about. Just like most of the rest of us.
Doyle McManus is a Los Angeles Times columnist.