New Legislation Would Prevent Trump from Using Nuclear Weapons on His Own
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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University
Recently, Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced new legislation in Congress. The proposed legislation is designed to prevent President Donald Trump from launching a first strike with nuclear weapons without Congress first having formally declared war.
However, two aspects of this proposed legislation are unrealistic. First, no one person can make such an important decision as the launching of nuclear weapons. That decision rests at the very top of the command chain, the National Command Authority.
The NCA is the ultimate source of military orders, such as launching nuclear weapons. The NCA currently consists of just President Trump and Secretary of Defense General James Mattis.
Second, Trump has unilateral authority to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons at any time, but the technical procedure to do so requires a secondary confirmation. In this case, that is the Secretary of Defense.
If General Mattis chose not to concur, the President could fire him. The Deputy Secretary of Defense would then become acting Secretary of Defense and could provide the needed confirmation.
A US Declaration of War Triggers Domestic Actions
Congress has not declared war since President Franklin Roosevelt went before a joint session the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. There is good reason for such legislative reluctance. A declaration of war authorizes a president to call up reserve military units, to suspend certain budget rules for Congress, to control selected export activities, and to detain “alien enemies,” among many others. In essence, it adversely affects the normal activities of the nation.
Congress Unlikely to Support Declaration of War by Trump
The current partisan nature of Congress makes it unlikely to declare war (at least in a timely manner). It appears unlikely that Congress would enable President Trump to unilaterally authorize a nuclear strike against another country.
Closing U.S. borders to seven Muslim-majority countries is causing major protests around the country and the world. Imagine the reaction to a declaration of war proposal to enable the U.S. to use nuclear weapons.
Reasons for New Nuclear Legislation Might Be Political
So, why are these two Congressmen introducing such legislation? Perhaps it’s because Trump alluded to a nuclear weapon option last year. In an MSNBC televised Town Hall meeting in March 2016, host Chris Matthews repeatedly pressed Trump on whether the latter would use nuclear weapons as president. In the context of a retaliatory strike against ISIS, Trump stated “I would be very, very slow and hesitant to pull that trigger.” Later in the exchange, Trump said “I’m not going to use nuclear, but I’m not taking any cards off the table.”
But, the more likely reason is politics. Such proposed – and unnecessary – legislation by these two members of Congress could result in needed publicity and funding for their re-election campaigns.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. His book about military base closures was published in 2009.