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Would Mattis Steal the Nuclear Football?

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

by Cassandra Varanka

September has already been a dramatic month for the Trump presidency with the release of yet another tell-all book. If the vignettes presented in Bob Woodward’s new book Fear: Trump in the White House are true, the White House is in chaos as members of President Trump’s own staff attempt to keep delicate issues out of the President’s reach. Despite their best efforts, there is one thing they cannot thwart: his power to launch a nuclear weapon. In a physical sense, that power literally follows the President around each day in the form of the infamous nuclear “football”.

Among the excerpts from Fear: Trump in the White House that have been previewed this week are anecdotes describing extraordinary actions his staff have taken to prevent President Trump from advancing particular policies. Gary Cohn, a former top economic advisor to President Trump, “stole a letter off Trump’s desk” that would have formally withdrawn the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Reports indicate that there may have been other instances in which papers were removed to prevent the President from approving policies that even his inner circle consider dangerous. While papers can be easily stolen in the hopes of being forgotten altogether, the ability to launch a nuclear weapon cannot be.

When the President of the United States issues an order to launch a nuclear weapon, no other government official is empowered to question, delay, or outright stop that order. One of the many stories from the final days of the Nixon presidency is the only known attempt to subvert the President’s ability to launch a nuclear weapon. Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger revealed that he ordered military commanders to check with him or then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prior to executing any nuclear launch orders issued by President Nixon. Would today’s presidential aides take such extraordinary measures to protect the country from their boss? Will any such committed and conscientious aides be left in the White House if that moment arrives?

Between the fire and fury tweets and President Trump’s demand for more and “more usable” nuclear weapons, the idea that the President might issue an order to launch a nuclear weapon seems credible. One twitter user accidentally found out just how credible that idea seems to the general public when he posted a satirical excerpt in the vein of Woodward’s new book. It read “When President Trump ordered a first strike on Pyongyang in front of a stunned Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Mattis quickly stood up, grabbed the President’s nose, and slipped his thumb between his index and middle fingers”. The Secretary’s parodied use of a common children’s diversion to distract President Trump from his catastrophic nuclear first strike order is a silly story to be sure. Despite that, the author soon found himself barraged by retweets from individuals who thought it was real. I’ll admit it, the only part of the story that rings false to me is the idea that Defense Secretary Mattis would not have developed subtler method of distracting the President than the old “I got your nose trick”.

There is hope despite the concerns raised by recent revelations about the state of the White House and its occupants: momentum is building to put an end to sole authority. The effort to end the President’s unilateral power to launch a nuclear weapon is being led by women state legislators. They have introduced resolutions calling on Congress to put checks and balances on sole authority in states from Massachusetts to Iowa to California. Last week, California was the first state to pass one of these resolutions: AJR 30, which was introduced by Assemblywoman Aguiar Curry. State legislators, with the support of their constituents, are taking action to ensure that the United States is not reliant on the actions of a rogue to staffer to keep us out of a nuclear war.

Regardless of where you stand on President Trump or his aides’ actions, it’s time to reform our cold war approach to starting a nuclear war. We need to institute legal checks and balances on the President’s sole authority to launch a nuclear first strike. We cannot tie our hopes for the prevention of nuclear war to the subversion of our democracy.

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