WASHINGTON, June 14, 2016 — President Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office after his inauguration. He sits back in the presidential swivel chair, his feet on the presidential desk, a self-satisfied grin spreading across the newly presidential face.
He twirls a cigar in his fingers, savoring the moment, when suddenly something catches his eye.
Could it be? Yes it could. There it is. On the left side of the desk. A shiny glass dome, and beneath it, a big, red button.
President Trump catches his breath. Shiny. He reaches out with his Trumpish fingers to caress the glass, carefully tips the dome away. He gently moves his finger around the button, as if to clean away some dust. He brushes his finger across it. His heart pounds, the rest of the room fades into nothing, his eyes are filled by The Button.
“How far do I have to push it to launch the missiles,” he wonders. “Do I have to push it hard? Will it click? Can I push it down just a little?” His finger rests on top of it. He pulls it back, let’s his nail catch the edge of it, it depresses just the tiniest bit then bounces back.
“Holy Mother of …” he begins. An impish smile comes to his lips. “Wouldn’t it put their panties in a wad to see me now,” he thinks. He puts his finger back on the button, pushes it just a little, releases the pressure, the button rises back into position. He tries it again, pushes just a little harder. A slight pressure resists him as he pushes. Just a teensy bit farther.
A sudden, sharp “click.” The smile vanishes. “Oh, s***” he thinks. “Trump, you’re fired.”
How do you feel about Trump’s finger on the button?
In her June 2 foreign policy speech that wasn’t, Hillary Clinton declared, “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes. It’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.”
Not since the Johnson-Goldwater campaign of 1964 has the temperament of a major-party candidate for the White House been the subject of such furious and fearful speculation. At issue isn’t just whether Trump knows enough about foreign affairs to manage America’s foreign policy, but whether his foreign policy would lead to global destruction.
Is Donald Trump a madman? Is this a man you want with his finger on the nuclear button?
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked at a Wisconsin town hall meeting in March whether Trump would consider the use of nuclear weapons.
“Look, nuclear should be off the table, but would there a time when it could be used? Possibly,” answered Trump.
Matthews pressed further. Could Trump to tell Europe and the Middle East that he would never use nuclear weapons?
Trump replied, “I am not—I am not taking cards off the table.”
Matthews looked aghast, but that was the right answer. No president should ever take nuclear weapons off the table unilaterally, and it has been American policy for decades that they not be taken off. The whole point of maintaining nuclear forces in Europe, in Asia, and almost certainly on American ships around the Middle East is that those weapons can and might be used.
That possibility is essential to their deterrence value.
The logic of nuclear deterrence demands that a country’s leadership credibly commit to do the unthinkable: to launch a nuclear arsenal even if that means global catastrophe. The rational move in this game—to refuse to launch the nukes—means that your opponent can act as if those weapons don’t exist. It is only the commitment to behave irrationally that keeps the weapons from ever being used.
But we don’t want them used too easily. To set your mind at ease, there is no actual button on the president’s desk that can launch nuclear weapons. We need not worry that in a moment of inattention, the president will accidentally start a nuclear war.
The system by which we launch nuclear weapons can’t be so easy that they can be launched by accident or on a whim. It can’t be so difficult that, when we detect Russian missiles flying at our cities and our military installations, the president can’t respond quickly and launch our own missiles before they’re reduced to radioactive slag.
Those competing requirements mean that the system will be highly complex. It includes failsafes, backup systems, redundancies, and verification checks. When the order comes to launch the missiles, we want to be sure that it came from an authorized source that really, really meant it.
The nuclear button isn’t real. There is a chain of command, and there are verification codes. The president can order the release of nuclear weapons, but the order must be confirmed by the secretary of defense. A “watch alert” is sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and after the president reviews the war plans, an aid contacts the National Military Command Center.
Trump seems lackadaisical about nuclear proliferation, speaking casually about the “inevitable” spread of nuclear weapons and the desirability of countries like Japan and Germany building nuclear arsenals of their own. His view of the subject seems predicated more on cost savings than on the history of nuclear non-proliferation or on national security concerns.
That’s a real concern. Trump’s thin skin is not. The LBJ campaign’s infamous “daisy ad” against Barry Goldwater was demagoguery at its worst; it was intended to terrify voters and convince them that Goldwater might really launch an attack on the USSR.
The evidence is that Trump is careless with his words, crude in his treatment of people he considers unimportant, and ignorant of foreign affairs. It is not that he is insane or looking forward to Armageddon.
And unless he managed to fill the Department of Defense with lackeys who were as insane as he would have to be, he couldn’t start a nuclear war for no better reason than an offense to his very thin skin.