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We must Trump-proof the nuclear codes before 2024

As the Russia-Ukraine war unfolds, it drives home the point that the U.S. needs to change the unilateral authority it gives the office of the presidency to launch nuclear attacks.
Image: Presidential nuclear football case
A military aide carries the nuclear "football" with the equipment and nuclear codes to Marine One, in Washington, DC., on Jan. 20, 2021.Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images file

As Russia lays siege to multiple Ukrainian cities and President Vladimir Putin puts his nuclear deterrent forces on alert, the United States and its NATO allies face the most severe geopolitical crisis of the post-Cold War era. These events should serve as a stark warning: The office of the presidency, with its all but unlimited authority over the decision to employ nuclear weapons, needs to be Trump-proofed well before the 2024 presidential elections.

Importantly, these reforms must come in the form of congressional legislation that could not easily be undone by a future president. And with the Democrats likely to lose their majority in the 2022 midterm elections, time is running out.

Whatever the outcome of the crisis, it offers an opportunity to reflect on how events might be unfolding had Putin begun rolling his tanks to the Ukrainian border while Trump was still in office.

It is hard to imagine a situation that drives home the risks that Donald Trump as commander in chief posed to national and global security as clearly as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The unfolding war requires a U.S. president who can stand tough against Putin’s aggression, maximize support for Ukraine while minimizing the risk of war between Russia and NATO, unite a fractious set of European allies and artfully utilize intelligence findings to pre-empt Russian disinformation campaigns without divulging intelligence methods or sources.​ Most importantly, Russia’s war on Ukraine makes evident the necessity of electing level-headed U.S. presidents capable of evaluating the potential consequences of escalating a conflict with a nuclear superpower.

As a political scientist who has been conducting research in the former Soviet Union for more than two decades, I can say with confidence that on every one of these counts, the challenges posed by the Russia-Ukraine crisis would have been amplified manifold were Trump still in office.

Far from standing up to Putin, he was infamous for his sycophantic statements about Russia’s president — a trend that continues to this day with Trump bizarrely praising Putin as “savvy” for his “genius” decision to recognize the sovereignty of Ukraine’s separatist regions. Meanwhile, instead of offering robust support for Ukrainian democracy, Trump had used his presidential powers to place Ukraine’s security interests at risk by withholding congressionally approved military aid in the hope of pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. It was an act of extortion that led to Trump’s first impeachment.

Trump also spent the better part of his presidency antagonizing U.S. allies and belittling the NATO alliance. And far from wielding intelligence in a sophisticated, responsible manner, he not only touted Putin’s word about Russia’s election interference over that of his own intelligence services, but also disclosed classified materials collected by a U.S. ally to Russian diplomats. It was a move that undermined the willingness of our international partners to share intelligence findings and possibly placed intelligence assets at risk.

Trump’s unwillingness to stand up to dictators, his inability to build coalitions of allies, and his negligent management of classified materials would all be disastrous in the face of a major geopolitical crisis. But it is his reckless temperament and fundamental misunderstanding of strategic nuclear diplomacy that would truly endanger the civilized world should the U.S. ever find itself on the brink of a nuclear confrontation with Trump at the helm.

Recall that Trump baffled foreign policy advisers during his presidential campaign with disconcerting questions about the purpose of maintaining nuclear weapons if a country has no intention of using them. Once in office, he then bragged about the size and the power of his “nuclear button,” flippantly injecting nuclear threats into Twitter spats with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

In all fairness, it is far too early to know how history will judge the Biden administration’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. But whatever the outcome of the crisis, it offers an opportunity to reflect on how events might be unfolding had Putin begun rolling his tanks to the Ukrainian border while Trump was still in office — and for recognition that there is a nonnegligible possibility that Trump could return to the presidency in 2024.

While the decision to place national security once again in the hands of Trump is ultimately up to the American people, no president — least of all a president with the character flaws of Trump — should possess unilateral authority, free of any formal checks and balances, to launch nuclear attacks.

Indeed, in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was so unnerved by Trump’s state of mind that she felt compelled to contact the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to request information regarding measures that could be taken should Trump rashly seek to use nuclear weapons during his last days in office.

Also spooked by Trump’s last days in office, Rep. Ted Lieu of California and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, reintroduced legislation that would, absent a nuclear attack on the U.S. or its allies, require the president to seek congressional authorization prior to launching a nuclear strike.

Biden himself has expressed support for a more restrained nuclear policy, emphasizing on his presidential campaign website that “the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack.”

To be sure, concerns that a “sole purpose” nuclear policy could weaken deterrence against nonnuclear attacks and further embolden China and Russia deserve to be taken seriously. But resolving long-standing debates over the conditions under which the U.S. should consider resorting to nuclear warfare need not be a priority at this time. Rather, what is essential is to implement procedures to prevent an unhinged president from single-handedly determining whether to hit the nuclear launch button.

With the possible exception of legislation aimed at preserving the integrity of U.S. elections, no other policy question deserves urgent attention more than the creation of a safety mechanism to safeguard against an itchy presidential nuclear trigger finger. This would be true regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. That 2024 might return Trump to the White House makes reform all the more imperative.