Pelosi’s risky blunder: Talking about Trump and nuclear war
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had every reason to be concerned. With President Trump trying to outdo the Roman Emperor Nero by undermining the Constitution he swore to defend, she was concerned about the possibility — perhaps no longer entirely remote — that he might initiate a nuclear conflict. So it was perfectly in order for her to consult Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, on how the military might respond to a presidential order to launch a nuclear strike against a state he perceived to be an adversary of America.
Moreover, Pelosi had every reason to be confused as to how far the president’s writ extended — in particular, whether the fact that he controlled the nuclear codes (colloquially and erroneously termed “the football”) meant that there was no check on his ability to start a nuclear war. It was a harrowing prospect.
Indeed, there is no check on a president’s ability to order an attack. As former Defense Secretary William Perry has stated, “A president gains the absolute authority to start a nuclear war. Within minutes, Trump can unleash hundreds of atomic bombs, or just one. He does not need a second opinion.”
Perry is a longtime expert in matters nuclear, in addition to having been one of the most successful Defense secretaries ever to hold that office. Nevertheless, actually executing a president’s strike order may be problematical. At the November 2017 Halifax International Security Conference, Gen. John Hyten, then commander of the U.S. Strategic Command and now vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked how he would respond to an “illegal” order to launch a nuclear attack. Hyten first pointed out that “we think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?” He went on to say: “I provide advice to the president. He will tell me what to do and if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options, of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”
Thus, even if there is no one in the chain of command who could formally countermand an order to launch a nuclear strike, that does not mean it actually might be carried out. The order must be legal, and as Gen. Hyten told his Halifax audience, the military has developed scenarios as to how to respond to an illegal order, noting that “if you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life.” (Assuming, of course, that there was life left on earth after a nuclear conflict.)
The process for determining whether an order is “legal” could be time-consuming, however, particularly if there were no indication that an adversary was preparing to launch nuclear weapons or had put its strategic nuclear forces on higher alert, as the United States itself did during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The military would not be the ones determining legality; that task would be left to the lawyers, those in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the White House Office of Legal Counsel, and probably in the State Department. Given the high stakes involved, the process might take days rather than hours.
It is precisely because the determination of legality might well have taken longer than the days that remained to the Trump presidency, Speaker Pelosi’s request, while proper, should not have been made public. By going public, Pelosi certainly was trying to set the stage for Trump’s removal, either via the 25th Amendment or impeachment, on the grounds that he actually might begin a nuclear war. Yet Americans were not the only ones to have received her message; it was heard by America’s friends and, far more worrisome, by America’s adversaries.
Perhaps Vladimir Putin will be confident that Trump would never attack Russia, given the president’s behavior throughout his term of office. Might the same be said about Iran’s leaders, however? Worse still, might North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or China’s Xi Jinping believe Pelosi’s reassurances that the United States would not launch a nuclear attack even if the president ordered one? Might they instead ready their forces for nuclear war? For the moment, it appears that Kim, Xi and others have taken Pelosi at her word — but that was not certain when she made her remarks public.
There are those who assert that Pelosi knew Gen. Milley’s answer before she put the question to him. That charge may be unfair. Nevertheless, it is arguable that, given the current high state of anxiety throughout the United States and among America’s allies and friends about the president’s behavior, Speaker Pelosi would have better served the nation had she taken to heart Sir John Falstaff’s famous maxim that “discretion is the better part of valor” — and kept her discussion with the Joint Chiefs chairman under wraps.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.