What scares Stephen King? Trump with nukes
© Getty Images

Stephen King knows scary when he sees it. The author of such terrifying tales as "The Shining", "Carrie" and "It", King is the undisputed master of horror. So what scares him? On May 3, King tweeted about President Donald Trump: “That this guy has his finger on the nuclear trigger is worse than any horror story I ever wrote.” 

King is not alone in this fear. The American public is growing increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems flip Wisconsin state Senate seat Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP rep: 'Sheet metal and garbage' everywhere in Haiti MORE has the power to launch thousands of nuclear weapons, each one many times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

This is enough firepower to literally destroy the world, and it’s in the hands of a man who is threatening military action against nuclear-armed North Korea. Trump said in late April, “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” Irresponsible statements such as this make that outcome more likely.

"The Bomb" is one area where what you don’t know can hurt you — big time. What most people don’t know is that the president has complete and sole authority to start a nuclear war. Unbelievable as it may sound, there are no institutional checks and balances to stop a president from going nuclear — no interagency meetings, congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions or U.N. votes. If the president decides to act, short of mutiny, no one can stop him. Once launched, the missiles cannot be recalled.

If you think subordinates in the chain of command would refuse to carry out a Trump order to launch nuclear weapons, think again. These are career military officers, trained to follow orders. Moreover, if they balk at the command, Trump can fire them, just as he recently sacked FBI Director James Comey.

Comey reportedly believes that Trump is unhinged. According to The New York Times, Comey told associates that Trump was “outside the realm of normal,” even “crazy.”

For Trump, ordering a nuclear strike is about as easy as ordering room service. All he has to do is find his assistant with the special phone, consult his menu of attack options and make the call. Remember that selfie with Rick, the guy who carries the nuclear football, at Mar-a-Lago? Now the football will soon have its own apartment in Trump Tower in New York, costing taxpayers in excess of $1 million per year.

The presidential ability to launch nukes within minutes is not new, but, like all things, it is different with Trump. Donald Trump may be the least informed and most impulsive president we have had in the nuclear age. He seems to have no concept of what the nuclear arsenal is or what it can do, saying things like, “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.”

As we saw with the cruise missile attack on Syria, Trump is capable of using military force impulsively with no long-term plan in mind; sort of like a weaponized tweet. Trump may be the last person who should be entrusted with the authority to launch nuclear weapons. Ironically, he is the only one that is.

Trump’s credibility has sunk so low that conservative commentator George Will, in a recent column, openly declared Trump unfit to lead the U.S. military:

“So, it is up to the public to quarantine this presidency by insistently communicating to its elected representatives a steady, rational fear of this man whose combination of impulsivity and credulity render him uniquely unfit to take the nation into a military conflict,” Will wrote.

But how do you “quarantine” the president of the United States? One way is to reestablish the checks and balances spelled out in the Constitution: Congress declares war, not presidents. 

On May 3, a coalition of 17 national organizations, including the Ploughshares Fund, Win Without War, Union of Concerned Scientists and Global Zero, delivered nearly 500,000 petitions to Capitol Hill asking Congress to limit the president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons. As the petition states, “We call on you to take action to ensure that no president can unilaterally launch a nuclear war.”

These half-a-million voters are asking Congress to approve legislation called the “Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act,” which would deny any president the authority to launch a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war from Congress. It would not restrict Trump from responding to a nuclear attack by another nation.

This bipartisan bill was introduced by Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Overnight Regulation: Dems claim 50 votes in Senate to block net neutrality repeal | Consumer bureau takes first step to revising payday lending rule | Trump wants to loosen rules on bank loans | Pentagon, FDA to speed up military drug approvals Dems say they have 50 votes in Senate to overrule net neutrality repeal MORE (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). At a May 3 press conference, Rep. Lieu said, "The current nuclear launch approval process, which gives the decision to potentially end civilization as we know it to a single individual, is flatly unconstitutional."

“No president should have the authority to launch a nuclear first strike without congressional approval,” Sen. Markey said. “Such a strike would be immoral, it would be disproportionate and it would expose the United States to the threat of devastating nuclear retaliation.”

Markey added that the petition is “a reflection of concern across our country of the use of nuclear weapons by the president.” 

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Trump is tempted to use the "ultimate weapon". The United States is now in a tense stand-off with North Korea. As any rational leader would know, there is no military solution for a Korean Peninsula where Seoul’s 25 million people live just 35 miles from the border with North Korea.

There is certainly no role for nuclear weapons in this crisis. Yet, given the inexperience and unpredictability of the leaders on both sides, accidents can happen; mistakes can be made; ill-advised red lines can be drawn and Impulsive tweets can be sent.

Stephen King is right. Trump mixed with the atomic bomb is scarier than anything King has written — so far. Congress, if it acts, can keep Trump’s nuclear war out of the history books and save it for King’s next best-seller.


Tom Z. Collina is director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, D.C. He has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and regularly briefs congressional staff. Collina has worked extensively as a researcher, analyst and advocate to strengthen the efforts to end U.S. nuclear testing, rationalize anti-missile programs, extend the Nonproliferation Treaty, and secure Senate ratification of the New START Treaty.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the the views of The Hill.