What Does It Mean to Have Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button?

As Bruce Blair describes in his Politico article, the idea of a potential Donald Trump presidency inspired fear in many as to his capacity to remain calm with America’s nuclear arsenal at his fingertips. With the election in the rearview mirror and Trump in the White House, should the American public still be concerned – and if so, what should we be doing about it?

I would argue that regardless of what one thinks of Trump, the Blair article raises plenty of concerns about the U.S. nuclear launch system that should be cause for concern, or at least for fear. The president’s ability to order a nuclear strike is virtually unchecked, and for good reason – in the case of an impending strike, any hesitation in the decision-making process would almost certainly mean not only the deaths of millions of Americans, but the destruction of the military chain of command that could allow for any kind of retaliation. At the same time, such a structure increases the potential for a false alarm to turn deadly. One of President Carter’s advisors was only seconds away from telling the president of an impending Russian nuclear attack; had the Colorado detection facility not explicitly broken their time guidelines and realized their mistake, there is a real chance that human civilization may not have lived to tell the tale. Seriously, it’s that terrifying.

It is for that reason that Blair can, in my opinion, correctly argue that no president can ever truly be “capable” of handling the nuclear responsibilities of the position. Until the day that nuclear weapons are eliminated entirely, it is probably unreasonable of us to expect that anybody, regardless of how levelheaded they may seem, can “process all that he or she needs to absorb under the short deadlines imposed by warheads flying inbound at the speed of 4 miles per second.” When you combine this with the knowledge that the only “defense” for a nuclear attack is retaliation, the idea of complete nuclear disarmament starts to look a lot more attractive.

Given that disarmament is almost certainly not going to happen in the near future, however, one prudent way to assuage these fears would seem to be investing in our nuclear detection facilities and potentially rethinking what should happen in the minutes following an alert. Should the president ever be able to act on one detection facility’s alert that is not corroborated by another facility? Is having a first strike capability, which President Obama (apparently quite reluctantly) kept as policy, necessary for any reason?

Lastly, where Trump specifically comes in is in an international relations regard. As Blair observes, false alarms are relatively rare; the far more likely scenario where nuclear weapons may come into play is as the result of the escalation of a drawn-out confrontation with another nuclear power. President Trump has certainly made statements in the past that may agitate foreign powers and increase the likelihood of a conflict; at the same time, U.S./Russia relations have almost undoubtedly improved since the election, decreasing the chance of a nuclear conflict there. Moving forward, at least until nuclear disarmament becomes something that is seriously considered, I believe that the best that the American people can do is take the state of U.S. international relations seriously and demand accountability from our elected leaders. After all, the best way to avoid having our president make the wrong choice is to keep them from ever having to make it. — Ben