The Trump presidency and growing risks of a nuclear war

In perilous decline, the Trump presidency’s greatest risk lies in crisis decision-making and potentially consequent nuclear war. Although seemingly far-fetched, this existential risk should never be dismissed out of hand. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the alarm just this week.

The core risks to the United States stem from the various and plausible reasons that President Donald Trump could sometime render “inappropriate” nuclear command decisions. Whether by deliberate intent, inadvertence, miscalculation or even outright irrationality, any such decision could spawn more-or-less intolerable security consequences. Even if Mr. Trump’s decisional errors were to concern “only” prospective conventional conflicts — e.g., Kim Jung Un’s North Korea — these seemingly sub-nuclear confrontations could nonetheless quickly escalate to a nuclear threshold.

In essence, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE should never lose sight of the potentially seamless connections and synergies between conventional conflict and nuclear war.


In the late 1970s, having already spent four years at Princeton, long an intellectual center of American nuclear strategic thought, I was busily preparing a far-reaching and original manuscript on U.S. nuclear strategy and formidable corollary risks of nuclear war. Then, I was most specifically interested in appraising American presidential authority to launch nuclear weapons.

Among other things, I learned that sophisticated and expectedly reliable safeguards were already built into American nuclear command/control decisions, but also that these essential safeguards might not meaningfully apply at the presidential level.

This disjunction did not seem to make any sense, especially in a world where flagrant leadership irrationality was hardly without precedent. 

So, reaching out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I asked about such a disjunction. Almost immediately, General Taylor sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the General's informed letter concluded: "As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one."

Now, in late 2018, this 1976 warning has taken on a very precise and recognizable urgency. Until now, in fact, I had never given serious thought to General Taylor’s strongly cautionary response. Somehow, I had simply assumed, "the system" would always operate smoothly and successfully.


The times have changed. Today, one must assume that if President Trump were ever to exhibit emotional instability and/or irrationality, he could (1) authoritatively order the use of American nuclear weapons, and (2) issue such an order without generating any calculable expectations of "disobedience."

Arguably, despite Mr. Trump’s persistently deferential treatment of Vladimir Putin, the United States and Russia are deeply involved in "Cold War II.” This expanding involvement could substantially complicate certain future U.S. presidential decision-making processes, including even strategic nuclear military decisions. Already, back on 3 October 2016, Russian President Putin ordered a halt to any then-planned agreement with the United States concerning weapons grade plutonium disposal.

This openly ominous suspension took place at the same time that the two superpowers were continuing a shadowy but still-accelerating nuclear arms race.

What actual remedies are required to best safeguard the United States? What should be done by the National Command Authority (NCA) if its members should sometime decide to oppose an obviously mistaken or contrived presidential order to use American nuclear weapons? Should the NCA respond in an impromptu or expressly ad hoc fashion? Or should there already be in place assorted measures to judge a president's reason and judgment, measures of the same sort that are routinely applied at lower levels of national nuclear command authority?

In principle, at least, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president, or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would have to be heeded. This sobering conclusion is incontestable. To do anything else, in such confused and bewildering circumstances, would be illegal prima facie, or “on its face.”


Any doubts we might currently harbor about Donald Trump as custodian of the U.S. nuclear codes should be framed as part of a far more generic problem of American presidential authority. More particularly, we ought to ask, if faced with a presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and if not offered any tangible corroborative evidence of some impending existential threat, would the sitting Secretary of Defense and/or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, among several relevant others: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing their presumptively well-founded expressions of disobedience?

Following the post-World War II criminal tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo, such questions should not be evaded and will need to be asked. If these questions are avoided or ignored, we could discover too late that all necessary remediation is past, and that the "best protection" against an irrational American president —  "not to elect one" — had gone unheeded.

 Louis René Beres, Ph.D. Princeton, is emeritus professor of international law at Purdue University. He is the author of 12 books and several hundred articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. His newest book is “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018)