On Jan. 20, President Donald Trump got the keys to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the most deadly killing machine ever created. The President said it was “a very sobering moment, yes. It’s very, very scary, in a sense.”
President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE now has the same frightening power as all presidents since Eisenhower. President Richard Nixon boasted in 1974: “I can go back into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.”
Within minutes, President Trump could unleash up to 1,000 nuclear weapons, each one many times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Short of mutiny, no one can stop him. Once launched, the missiles cannot be recalled.
But never before have so many openly questioned the authority of the commander-in-chief to have his finger on the nuclear button. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization MORE (R-Fla.) said we simply could not give “the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual.” President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election Former Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal MORE “still doesn’t think Donald Trump can handle the nuclear codes or safely protect America from attack.”
Adding to this unease, Trump tweeted recently that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and reportedly said, “Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Many would say that Trump should be the last person to entrust with the authority to launch nuclear weapons. In fact, he is the only one that is.
The reality is that when it comes to using the bomb, the president has almost complete autonomy with no institutional checks and balances. There are no interagency meetings, congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, or UN votes. As Bruce Blair, a former Air Force nuclear missile launch officer, has said, “the presidency has evolved into something akin to a nuclear monarchy.”
Yes, there are many systems in place to prevent nuclear weapons from being launched by an unauthorized person or by accident. But currently there is no way to prevent a president from starting nuclear war.
How can we remedy this situation? It is long past time to bring democracy to decisions about the bomb. It no longer makes sense, it if ever did, to have so much power in the hands of one person. It is just too dangerous.
For decades, Americans have ceded the authority to start a nuclear war to a single person. Congress has no voice in the most important decision the United States government can make. As it stands now, Congress has a larger role in deciding on the number of military bands than in initiating nuclear catastrophe. This situation completely contradicts the checks and balances created by the U.S. Constitution.
Even though they could not imagine the dangers of nuclear war, the Framers of the Constitution understood the dangers of tyranny and gave the power to declare war to Congress—not to the President. With British rule fresh in their minds, they believed that ceding such power to the executive would result in a state of perpetual conflict, and that the only way to check that power was citizen participation in any decision to go to war.
"Our Founding Fathers would be rolling over in their graves if they knew the President could launch a massive, potentially civilization-ending military strike without authorization from Congress,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said last year.
On Jan. 24, Rep. Lieu and Sen. Edward MarkeyEd MarkeyOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Six Democrats blast Energy Department's uranium reserve pitch Facebook draws lawmaker scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens MORE (D-Mass.) introduced a bill that would prohibit the president from launching nuclear weapons without a declaration of war from Congress, except in response to a nuclear attack. The bill would effectively block the president from using nuclear weapons first in a crisis, without authorization from the people’s elected representatives.
Some might argue that Congress would never provide this authority, and thus the president could never use nuclear weapons first. Fine. As then-Vice President Biden announced Jan. 11, “it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense.”
And as Sen. Markey said recently, “Neither President Trump, nor any other president, should be allowed to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack. By restricting the first use of nuclear weapons, this legislation enshrines that simple principle into law.”
Without congressional deliberation and citizen participation in the gravest decisions of life and death, our democracy is greatly diminished. Citizens are treated as children who don’t deserve a voice in how our country’s nuclear weapons are deployed. That is not how the world’s greatest democracy should work.
Congress must end the nuclear monarchy, exercise its constitutional responsibility and demand its rightful role in nuclear weapons policymaking. The likely outcome is a greatly reduced chance that any president, including President Trump, would push the button. The certain outcome is a restoration of our democratic institutions.
Kennette Benedict is Senior Advisor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Tom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, D.C. Benedict contributed to and Collina edited the recent Ploughshares report, Ten Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.