No Institutional Safeguards Stand Between Donald Trump and Nuclear War

Posted Aug. 23, 2017

MP3 Interview with Mark Hertsgaard, investigative editor at large for The Nation magazine and the author of seven books, including, "Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden", conducted by Scott Harris


Before the media spotlight shifted away from the dangerous war of words between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the tragic events in Charlottesville, the nation and the world had become alarmed at the apparent threat of a nuclear confrontation on the Korean peninsula. Not since the days of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had any two nations rattled their nuclear armed sabers at each other in such a dangerous fashion.

In response to a string of typical taunts from Kim Jong Un and his nation’s increasing capability to launch nuclear armed missiles that could reach the U.S. mainland, President Trump issued an extraordinary ultimatum to Pyongyang on Aug. 8, warning the isolated communist government not to make any more threats or they will "face fire and fury like the world has never seen."

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with author Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation Magazine's investigative editor at large. Here, Hertsgaard discusses his recent Nation article, titled "Do You Trust Donald Trump's Finger on the Nuclear Button," examining growing concern about Donald Trump’s fitness for office – and the president’s unilateral control of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Of course, immigration matters. Of course, health care and Obamacare matters. Of course, Black Lives Matter and all the other issues we can talk about. But those are issues where you can lose today and resume the fight tomorrow. But with nuclear weapons, that's not case. You get one chance, you go wrong one time and it can be all over. And you know, only climate change has that kind of impact. But climate change does not have that short of a fuse. And such a hair-trigger aspect of the nuclear crisis – and I say this again as a reporter. I've covered nuclear weapons since the 1980s since the Reagan- Gorbachev years and I haven't been this frightened, frankly, this those days before Gorbachev arrived and the U.S. and the Soviets were very, very close. A lot of bellicose rhetoric and very close, much closer than most people realized at the time, to nuclear war.

Now, we have someone as commander-in-chief – who, forget Donald Trump's politics, forget his ideology, forget his racism and all the rest of it. Just compare his temperament to every other U.S. president, Democrat or Republican that we have had since World War II ended with nuclear weapons and we opened the nuclear age. There has not been one president who has been this erratic, this impulsive, this uninformed, this easily baited. This vindictive. Somebody who many psychologists have said, is arguably, mentally ill. This is not somebody who should be able to decide unilaterally whether we go to nuclear war.

And that's, again, a situation that existed before Donald Trump. It's been true for basically every president since Kennedy, where we have our weapons on a hair trigger, just as the Soviets and now the Russians do, and the argument was always OK, the president has to be able to fire back immediately. Six minutes is the waiting period. And that's why, every president of the United States has always been shadowed by a senior military officer who is carrying the so-called nuclear football. He is never more than 15 feet away from the president. If the president suddenly takes an elevator ride up to the top of some building, that person is in there with the nuclear codes. And that is what, to me, is most scary about Donald Trump. He does not have to ask anyone to push that button. He can, he can choose to ask people, but he's under no obligation and he can unilaterally start a nuclear war.

Maybe he just decides, "Okay, I've had enough of North Korea. They need to be taught a lesson." And he could give the order. Now, that to me, is a very terrifying situation that should unite everyone across the political spectrum, whether you're a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, and anarchist. It doesn't matter. Everyone should be worried about this individual's temperament having his finger on the nuclear button.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Describe for our listeners this legislation that is being initiated in Congress, Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017. As I understand it, this was in the works before Donald Trump was elected president.


BETWEEN THE LINES: But, where are things at with that and how can our listeners support it?

MARK HERTSGAARD: You're talking about the Marquis-Lieu legislation as it's known. That's named after Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who is one of the co-sponsors, and then Rep. Ted Lieu, who is actually a military veteran. He's from out in California, and they are two Democrats and nobody on Capitol Hill currently gives that legislation a high chance of passage. But, it's important, especially at moments like this, to talk about it because the circumstances on the ground are going to lead more people to support it. And basically what the legislation does – it's a reformist piece of legislation, but it's a smart reform. It basically says that a nuclear first strike can only be launched by the president of the United States if the Congress agrees. Not a retaliatory strike, but a nuclear first strike. And they say, There's no argument that if we launch nuclear weapons at somebody, that is war. And only Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war. So the Lieu-Markey legislation would essentially require any president – this president or any president – before they do a first strike to consult with Congress. It's a small step, but in this current situation, it's a very important one.

The other thing that needs to be done immediately is to take our nuclear weapons – and to talk to the Russians about this, obvious – to take both sides' nuclear weapons off of "hair trigger" alert. There's no reason for us to be on "hair trigger" alert. Six minutes of window for decision-making. Vladimir Putin and Russia has an ever shorter four-minute time. There's too many in the history of nuclear weapons over the last 60-plus years now – there's too many times where we've had almost accidental war because of miscalculation or you see the wrong thing on the radar screen and you think that that flock of birds is an attack or you think that Norwegian weather satellite launch is a nuclear attack – and both of those were real incidents that we barely escaped.

So we need to get the weapons off of hair-trigger. We need to prevent a first strike and the Ted Lieu and Ed Markey legislation would do that. I think it would be very important if and when people talk to their members of Congress and representatives to do both of those things. Support that legislation, but in the meantime, call the Pentagon. Call the White House and say Trump is not allowed to make this decision unilaterally.

For more of Hersgaard's writings, visit The Nation at

Related Links:

Subscribe and get Between The Lines' Weekly Summary in your inbox!