Trump Alone Has the Nuclear Codes—But Congress Can Change That

Though Americans are routinely desensitized to violence big and small, this should serve as a wake up call: The president alone can launch hundreds of nuclear weapons within minutes.

nuclear codes trump capitol mob
Pictured: Trump on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, at El Paso International Airport. (White House Photo / Andrea Hanks)

After the last few days, we are left wondering: Is there a line that Trump won’t cross? He has pardoned war criminalsthreatened elected officials, is thinking about pardoning himself, and delivered what people are calling a concession speech only after the Capitol Hill insurrection that he openly encouraged. In the absence of any airtight legal constraints, right now all we have is hope (#thoughtsandprayers) that he won’t launch a potentially apocalyptic nuclear war.

We have been worried about the sanity of presidents before, and it will happen again. As Laicie Heeley details in “Nixon’s Drunken Run-ins With the Bomb,” President Nixon was only a couple drinks away from nuking the planet off its axis in his final year as president. He reportedly said, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” 

Sources close to Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta that he is “unstable, ranting and raving” and “bent on destruction in his final days.” That is not something you want to hear about someone who has the nuclear codes for almost two more weeks.

Now, we know what you are thinking (and tweeting and tweeting): Someone would stop him.

“There are many barriers/checkpoints before he’d get to push a button,” says one Twitter user. “Surely they must have an override in place that would negate (short circuit) the code process if a sitting President displays signs of insanity?” says another. “The only way I sleep at night is with the belief that the generals will not obey any Trump orders that put Americans and the world at risk. They will refuse to carry out an illegal order or a calamitous one,” said a third.

Well, it isn’t that simple. In fact, the Senate held a hearing in 2017 to discuss that very issue. The outcome was murky, at best.

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Robert Kehler, the former head of U.S. Strategic Command said, as summarized by the Atlantic, “Military leaders could refuse to carry out a presidential order for a nuclear first strike if they and their legal advisers conclude that the military action is unnecessary, excessive or indiscriminate in targeting civilians—and that the request from the White House is therefore unlawful.”

But the pressure to obey an order would be massive, says CEO of Global Zero, Derek Johnson. Even if someone did disobey the order, the president could then fire and replace them, said Brian McKeon, the former acting undersecretary for policy at the Defense Department.

Yep, you read that correctly. The president could just can the detractor—and then what? Bombs away. Though Americans are routinely desensitized to violence big and small, this should serve as a wake up call—the president alone can launch hundreds of nuclear weapons within minutes.

According to research from ReThink Media, when Americans are told that one person has the authority to launch the nukes, 80 percent are concerned—including two-thirds of Republicans, three-quarters of Independents, and nearly all Democrats.

We have a long way to go when it comes to building back up our democracy in the years to come—we can no longer ignore the deep crevices in the foundation of our republic. But there is one thing that we can all agree on: One person should not have the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. Not Trump, President-Elect Biden, nor any future president.

Here’s the good news. Women, per usual, have had their eye—and pen—on this pressing issue for years. State legislators across the country, with the support of the Women Legislators’ Lobby, have introduced and passed resolutions urging Congress to fix this gaping hole in our democracy by implementing checks on the president’s nuclear authority. California, New Jersey, Illinois, and Oregon have all passed resolutions urging their Congressional delegation to take a stand.

Maryland Delegate Pam Queen who introduced a resolution in 2018 with other legislators stated, “It was very much a deliberate approach to have women lead these endeavors. We can be strong without having to use brute force.” 

Trump alone has the nuclear codes—but Congress can change that. nuclear codes trump capitol mob
A 2016 protest against the use of nuclear weapons. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

In Congress, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation in 2019 calling for a “No First Use” policy to reduce the risk of nuclear miscalculation and keep a potentially trigger-happy president in check. Despite the fact that Americans across the political spectrum agree, Republicans have been reluctant to work across the aisle to change our nuclear policy. But with a Democratic majority in Congress and executive branch, we have a window of opportunity to change the status quo.

In the meantime, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to make sure that these fears are not realized. In a Dear Colleague letter sent to the House on Friday morning, she says that she spoke to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to discuss “available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike. The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.”

Now is the time to pass legislation.

As the twitterverse has showed us, you don’t need to be a military general, a nuclear engineer, or a policy expert to advocate for a healthier democracy and a safer world.

Yep, Trump still has the nuclear codes, and, yes, we can change that.

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About and

Corey Greer is the Communications Director at Women's Action for New Directions, a nonprofit organization devoted to building women's political power to advocate for security and peace with justice. She was previously on the Gender Equality team at the United Nations Development Program in Istanbul and the Gender, Women and Democracy team at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
Samantha Blake is the Women Legislators’ Lobby Program Manager at Women’s Action for New Directions.