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VERIFY: A look at what approval Trump needs before a nuclear attack

While the president doesn't need approval to fire a nuclear attack, the process includes several consultations that would likely block such an order.
Credit: AP
President Donald J. Trump raises his hand in a salute Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, after arriving at Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Now in his last days in office, President Trump still has control over nuclear weapons. And that’s something Senate Democrats have made clear they want to prevent. 

Amid impeachment talk and concern for the president’s stability, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told House Democrats in a letter Jan. 8 that she talked to Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about restricting Trump’s access to the nuclear codes. 

THE QUESTION

Can the president order a nuclear strike at will?

THE ANSWER 

Yes, the president has the sole authority to order a nuclear attack, says the Congressional Research Service. But, questions about the legality of the order would likely “lead to consultations and changes in the president’s order than to a refusal by the military to execute the order,” the CRS says.

WHAT WE FOUND

Although the president has the lone authority to order an attack, he doesn’t actually have his finger on a nuclear button, the CRS says in “Defense Primer: Command and Control of Nuclear Forces.” Instead, he would use a special Gold Code, or biscuit, to authenticate a nuclear attack, says “Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority,” published in the journal Arms Control Today. The biscuit is actually a plastic card that the president carries at all times.

Although the president needs no approval or consent for an attack, the protocol calls for a meeting with his military advisers, who might “adjust his orders to meet the laws of armed conflict,” the CRS says. It would be those advisers’ last chance to dissuade the president “if his thinking or final decision veer into the realm of the obviously misguided or illegal,” says the Arms Control Today article.

The launch order would be quickly formatted and transmitted over multiple communications channels directly to submarine, bomber and underground launch crews, the article says. If the code matches the code in the firing crews’ safe, the attack is on.

What if the president is mentally unstable? After Pelosi raised the question Jan. 8 with Gen. Milley, his spokesman issued a statement that Pelosi initiated the call and “he answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority.”

It’s not the first time for such concerns. During his 1974 impeachment hearings, Richard Nixon “was drinking heavily and many advisers considered him unstable,” says the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Nixon threatened that he could pick up the phone and 70 million people would be dead. The Bulletin, known for the Doomsday Clock, advocates requiring that the next two people in the presidential chain of succession concur with an attack order.

In an interview Jan. 8 on “Today” on NBC, Colin Powell said: “I was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I can tell you for sure that if something like this happened and someone suddenly said, ‘Here, we want to use a nuclear weapon,’ they would never get near it.”

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