Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was often referred to as ‘the adult in the room” in Donald Trump’s White House. With his abrupt resignation on Thursday many people in Washington are expressing alarm.
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia called Mattis “an island of stability amid the chaos of the Trump administration.” Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told The Washington Post that “having Mattis there gave all of us a great deal more comfort than we have now.”
However, according to the Washington Post, the Secretary of Defense is not part of the military, and the president can launch nuclear weapons whenever he wants.
The Post wrote:
“The notion that Mattis, a former four-star Marine Corps general, could have blocked or defied a move by Trump to impulsively launch nuclear weapons may have seemed comforting, but it shouldn’t have been. The secretary of defense has no legal position in the nuclear chain of command, and any attempts by a secretary of defense to prevent the president from exercising the authority to use nuclear weapons would be undemocratic and illegal.”
“With or without Mattis, the president has unchecked and complete authority to launch nuclear weapons based on his sole discretion.”
According to the Post, the U.S. nuclear early warning system is triggered by events that appear to threaten the U.S., and the president is notified immediately by the head of U.S. Strategic Command. This allows the president to “launch nuclear missiles before they are destroyed or the U.S. government is incapacitated by incoming weapons.”
But the weakness of this system is that “it can pressure even experienced leaders to consider nuclear weapons in a crisis sooner than warranted.” And when the leader in charge of U.S. nuclear weapons is not “experienced” then the situation becomes very “precarious” according to the Post:
“This system seems especially ill-suited to a president who has demonstrated time and again that he can be provoked into taking rash action, and who, as a candidate, openly questioned why the United States could not use the nuclear weapons it possesses.”
“This is a dangerous set of instincts for a commander in chief with sole and unchecked authority over almost 4,000 nuclear weapons, nearly 1,000 of which could be fired within a few minutes.”
While Defense Secretary, Mattis told the commander of the Strategic Command to inform him immediately of any event that could lead to a nuclear alert being sent to the president. He told the Strategic Command “not to put on a pot of coffee without letting him know.” In other words, he wanted to play a role in the decision whether to launch nuclear weapons or not.
But the Post asserts that
“Even informed observers are surprised to learn the president can order the use of nuclear weapons without the input — or consent — of the secretaries of Defense or State, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the vice president.”
So if Mattis had been with the president during a nuclear crisis, Trump could still have ignored his advice. Trump, as he has shown many times, makes decisions based on his own feelings and doesn’t usually seek counsel from others. If anyone tried to stop him from issuing a nuclear launch order Trump could order his or her removal by the Secret Service.
And, according to the Post, it is not clear that “Trump — or any president — should have the legal ability to independently initiate the use of nuclear weapons.”
The solution to this frightening situation is for Congress to pass legislation changing the procedures that allow the president to launch nuclear weapons on his own.
As the Post said, such legislation should be passed very quickly:
“Neither Mattis nor anyone else can reassure the American people that a president will not, on a whim, use the most fearsome weapons humans have ever invented. Only laws can constrain such a dangerous prospect. It is well past time for our country to take control of the nuclear chain of command.”