No, he can’t. But we have to be very clear between the scenario which is usually used – an imminent strike on the US, and whether the president would respond with nuclear weapons – and then another one, which is would President Donald Trump, without any provocation, simply decide to launch nuclear weapons.
The American launch codes and authorisations are carried in something called ‘the football’, which is a briefcase which is always near the president, carried by one of his aides. But President Trump couldn’t just simply just demand the briefcase, push a supposed red button, and set everything off. He would have to give the order to launch, which would have to be confirmed – probably by the Secretary of Defence, and senior elements of the US military.
We had a scenario back in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon was in a fairly unstable condition towards the end of his presidency, where advisers like Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig were ensuring that Nixon could not give the order and have it implemented without question by subordinates. That is the check built into the US system, against a first strike being ordered by the president.
Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office, 1973 (Photo: Central Intelligence Agency)
Much more troubling is if you have that critical situation, where for some reason – an aerial attack on the US, a serious military confrontation with Russia, for example – the president has a 15 to 30 minute window in which to make a decision about responding with nuclear weapons.
The problem here is with the American system, rather than with Trump if he happened to be president. And that is that you have a developed a series of bureaucratic techniques which cover the use of nuclear weapons, but they certainly aren’t established as a legal process, because the argument has always been that if you legally enshrine these, you cut out flexibility – when you might need to respond in a few minutes, you can’t go to a judge or a court. So you have to rely on others within the system – the Secretary of Defence, the National Security Adviser, to support the president as he or she makes that call.
To show you how fragile that system is, though, one of the times we’ve come closest to a nuclear exchange was back in 1979, during the Carter administration – and Carter was a far more sensible president than a president Trump would be. There was the belief that the Soviets had launched missiles against the US, and the National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski believed that the president had only minutes to decide. Two phone calls confirmed that the missiles were on their way, and a third phone call said it was a false alarm.
The problem there is not with the president, but with a system that is not mistake-proof – and with a National Security Adviser who was possibly inclined to say that we had to act, and act now. And a problem not just with the nuclear issue, but with all foreign policy questions, is that we don’t know who Donald Trump would surround himself with. We just don’t know where he would get his expertise and information. My hope is that the American system has enough built into it that it can contain an unstable, erratic and incoherent president.