On January 20, amid the pageantry denoting the peaceful transfer of power in the United States, an unnamed military aide carrying a black leather satchel moved silently and solemnly from Barack Obama’s side and stood nearer Donald J. Trump. Within the innocuous-looking bag were the launch codes for America’s vast nuclear arsenal, comprising some 6,800 warheads, many on hair-trigger alert.
For the new commander in chief, it was “sobering” to be briefed that morning on the unparalleled destructive force now at his fingertips. “Very, very scary, in a sense,” he said in an interview. Like every US president since the dawn of the atomic age, Trump, upon taking the oath of office, gained sole authority to initiate nuclear war. No other US official need approve his decision.
Many politicians and pundits, as well as retired missile-launch officers, have questioned whether Trump has the temperament and good judgment to wield such tremendous power. During last year’s election campaign, his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, stoked debate on this topic, once quipping: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
But implicit in her warning, and in so much of the commentary on the perils of Trump and nuclear weapons, is the notion that there are safe hands for these ultimate instruments of terror and destruction—that certain individuals, Clinton included, are wise and judicious and rational enough to decide when it’s acceptable to incinerate civilians indiscriminately and on a massive scale.
As the media have often noted, Trump won’t rule out one day launching a nuclear strike—though this is hardly surprising. Obama, who earned himself a Nobel Peace Prize for his intention to pursue disarmament, had also kept open the possibility of waging nuclear war, and ignored repeated calls by former military leaders to adopt a policy never to be the first to use a nuclear weapon in a conflict.
One cannot sensibly reject nuclear weapons for Trump—or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, or any other pugnacious head of state—while accepting, even embracing, them for those with friendlier faces. Democracy doesn’t afford public servants the choice to keep nuclear codes from a president whom they deem too impulsive or ruthless or irrational to have them.
A month before assuming office, Trump provoked widespread outrage and alarm when he tweeted—apparently in response to remarks by Putin—that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” When pressed to elaborate, he casually and confidently said, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass.”