In the final days of Donald Trump’s administration, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered some very unusual instructions to senior military officials. If they received orders to launch an attack, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons, they were to “do the process” of consulting with him first. The general asked all of the officers to verbally signal their assent, which he reportedly considered “an oath.”
That’s according to a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Milley had become so alarmed at Trump’s addled behavior, the authors say, that he felt the added safeguards were necessary to forestall a calamity. In issuing the orders, he knew full well that he was “pulling a Schlesinger,” or echoing the actions of Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, who took similar measures to constrain an increasingly erratic Richard Nixon in 1974.
Both incidents also highlight a longstanding but largely unresolved danger: the lack of guardrails to prevent a reckless or unstable president from starting a nuclear war.
Following the latest revelations, Republicans have accused Milley of everything from insubordination to treason. But whether he acted improperly is debatable. It’s unclear if Milley actually sought to usurp civilian control of the military, as some critics charge, or merely urged officers to keep him informed if they received any outlandish orders — a not unreasonable request at a time when the president appeared unhinged and much of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership consisted of acting officials who’d only spent weeks on the job.
As it happens, there’s no evidence that Trump was contemplating using nukes. But that doesn’t mean the world is safe from future presidents in a similar situation. Under current policy, the commander in chief possesses sole authority to order a nuclear strike against an adversary, at any time and place. Although he or she would be expected to seek the advice of cabinet members and military leaders before issuing the order, there’s no requirement to do so. Once the president chooses from the list of attack options contained in the nuclear “football,” strikes could begin in a matter of minutes. Aside from the possibility that individual members of the military might refuse to carry out orders they deemed unlawful, there are no formal constraints on a president’s ability to initiate a nuclear war.
Such unrestricted power poses unacceptable risks. As commander in chief, the president should of course retain authority to take all necessary retaliatory measures if the U.S. were to come under nuclear attack. But stronger safeguards are needed to limit the danger of an unprovoked first use of such weapons.
At a minimum, a presidential order for a preemptive nuclear strike should be certified as authentic by the secretary of defense and reviewed by the attorney general to determine its legality. The vice president, as well as leaders of both parties in Congress, should be notified of the order. In theory, a president hell-bent on using the bomb would still be able to ignore objections raised by other branches of government. But involving more elected and appointed officials in the process could delay hair-trigger action, buy time to consider less destructive options, and allow for more aggressive measures — such as invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president — if necessary.
Nuclear war, in Ronald Reagan’s words, cannot be won and must never be fought. Since the start of the atomic age, every American president has accepted the grim logic of deterrence, but that may not always hold true. A more deliberate process for nuclear decision-making is necessary to protect the country, and the world, from the consequences of presidential miscalculation.