On January 20, the military officer carrying the commands and controls for the nation’s massive nuclear arsenal—the officer who follows the president everywhere, the officer who is required to stay within a few feet of the president, required to be in the same elevator with him even as other dignitaries wait for the next cab—that officer will follow President Barack Obama to the inauguration stand on the west front of the Capitol. When he leaves, he will be following President Donald Trump.
The man who can be baited with a tweet, the man whose campaign team did not trust with a Twitter account, the man whose unpredictability and wild temperament made him an unacceptable choice for the majority of voters this November, will have, from that moment forward, the unfettered ability to launch nuclear war.
This frightens me. It frightens my 92-year-old mother-in-law, who told me, “I’m afraid that crazy man is just going to push the button!” If he did, there would be no one to stop him, short of a mutiny. There is no institutional check on a president’s ability to fire nuclear weapons should he or she wish to do so. President Trump will be able to launch, within minutes, one or one thousand nuclear weapons without any vote, any check, or even any serious deliberation.
It is one of three great nuclear risks of the Trump presidency—and one that President Obama could negate with the stroke of a pen. Before he leaves office, he could, at long last, take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. It would then take many hours, even days, to launch, allowing for consultation and reflection.
It may even be that President Trump will take steps to reduce nuclear dangers. But he first must avoid two other risky policies he favored during the campaign. He should not do anything to encourage other nations to get nuclear weapons. Trump said in election interviews that he thought it fine if South Korea or Japan or Saudi Arabia wanted nuclear bombs, because “it’s going to happen anyway.” There are already far-right, nationalist groups in South Korea and Japan pushing for nuclear weapons, and both nations have the technical capability to build them. Japan already has the plutonium needed for the cores of weapons; it could likely build a bomb within a few months.
Encouraging allies to go nuclear would reverse 71 years of American policy. No president, Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, has ever encouraged an ally to build nuclear weapons. Not the United Kingdom, not France, not Israel. The bedrock of US policy has been to stop the spread of these weapons and reduce the existing arsenals, working toward their complete elimination. Trump could destroy that consensus, unleashing a new, destabilizing wave of proliferation.