Joshua PollackPresidential Command and Control in the Age of Trump

The outcome of the U.S. presidential election has filled many Americans, and people around the world, with bewilderment and dread. How did we get here? Where are we going? How seriously should we take President-elect Trump’s promises?

Let’s remember! At various points during the campaign, candidate Trump’s promises included a campaign of millions of deportations, barring all Muslims from the United States, employing tortures worse than waterboarding, the rapid dismantling of health insurance for millions of Americans, cracking down on the press through loosened libel laws, wielding antitrust laws against the unrelated business interests of a man whose newspaper he dislikes, and appointing a special prosecutor to hound his vanquished opponent. And then there’s his frank attitude about turning high office into just another opportunity for turning profits (“the president can’t have a conflict of interest“). Having voted in The Donald with open eyes, America owes Dick Nixon an apology.

If a fraction of these assaults on our society and constitutional order come to pass, changes in foreign and defense policy might not seem like a big deal by comparison. But this is, so let’s talk about the Bomb.

Much has already been said about the possible implications for the fate of the Iran deal, North Korea policy, nuclear modernization, extended deterrence, and bilateral arms control with Russia. Honestly, who knows what will happen? The informed commentary mostly boils down to the adage “personnel is policy,” and we still don’t have any clear idea of who will run the many relevant offices in the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy. Why bother adding to the speculation?

There’s just one area where we do know who will make the decisions, and that is the employment of nuclear weapons. This duty will fall to one Donald J. Trump of New York.

That’s a hard pill to swallow. During the campaign, Trump showed himself to be impulsive, prickly, vengeful, ignorant… in brief, ill-qualified for the job of commander-in-chief by any ordinary measure. As Alex Wellerstein, among others, notes, it’s been hard for many people to accept that President Trump, like any other American president, will indeed have the exclusive and unappealable authority to employ nuclear weapons – at any time and in a matter of minutes. No checks, no balances. None at all. None.

With hindsight, the last time America had a President with an equally worrisome psychological profile, his name was Richard M. Nixon. (For a critical look at the mind-of-Nixon literature, see chapter 6 of Rose McDermott’s fascinating and disturbing book Presidential Leadership, Illness and Decision Making.) Nixon, perhaps somewhat like Trump, seemed driven by an enduring sense of humiliation and was inclined to vindictiveness. He appealed to Americans’ fears of disorder, did not shrink from commanding violence, and saw unpredictability as a strength. As it turns out, Nixon sometimes proposed nuclear attacks on the spur on the moment when challenged by the North Koreans or frustrated by the North Vietnamese. Some accounts connect these episodes to the president’s heavy drinking.

Exclusive presidential command and control of nuclear weapons is a well-established tradition, although not always a hard-and-fast rule. President Truman did not order the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. Over a decade later, President Eisenhower “predelegated” emergency authority to certain commanders to use the nuclear weapons under their control. (By one account, too, SAC commander Curtis LeMay privately asserted in the same period that he had no intention of waiting for an order before launching an all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, if he became aware of Soviet preparations for attack.) Following the account in this 1975 IDA study, the origins of the tradition of exclusive presidential command (ca. 1946) and its precise legal standing are somewhat murky. But never mind: the existing system for authorizing nuclear use is built around this principle. And the coming of President Trump is as good an occasion to reconsider that approach as I care to imagine.

In the meantime, it seems wisest to avoid adding oil to this particular deep fryer. Since the electorate has elevated someone so manifestly unqualified for the grave responsibilities of the presidency, not to mention uninterested in them, the safest course of action would be to avoid unnecessarily handing him, or any equally unfit successor, any sharp objects. I’m thinking in particular of conventional prompt global strike weapons. When a panel organized under the National Research Council examined CPGS options almost a decade ago, they started from an assumption that the use of these weapons, too, would be the prerogative of the president. If anyone has reevaluated that idea, I haven’t seen it. But you know what? The best time to consider command-and-control arrangements is before any such weapons are actually acquired and deployed.

In other words, now.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    McClatchy has a longish article on just this topic:

    Trump’s finger soon will hover over the nuclear button. Will he be ready?
    By Tim Johnson
    November 25, 2016 4:28 PM

  2. Joshua Pollack (History)

    Good article. Thanks.