Nuclear Decision-Making And Covid19 Impairments: Existential Perils Of The Trump Presidency


“In a surrealist year….some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at his prayers on the 19th green.”Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

It is no longer just a casual or gratuitous apprehension. Now, following US President Donald Trump’s Covid19 diagnosis and treatment, an impaired or irrational nuclear command decision is entirely plausible. Though nothing can  be determined about the actual mathematical probability of any such once hard-to-imagine scenario,[1] there are amply good reasons for concern.

               Several serious questions arise, though some not directly related to the Covid factor. In view of strange and risky personal behaviors pre-dating Trump’s medical diagnosis  – hardly a controversial or narrowly partisan assessment any longer – there are several forms of dissemblance worth noting. Should these normally separate debilities begin to intersect in variously specific ways, whether predictable or unpredictable, they could produce profound synergies.

               By definition, these particular intersections would produce cumulative harms that exceed the sum of their injurious parts.

               Leaving aside Donald J. Trump’s evident venality and his continuing disinterest in science, law and history, an overriding query must finally be raised:

               Should this president still be allowed to decide when and where to launch American nuclear weapons?

               In the early days of the Nuclear Age, when strategic weapon-survivability was still markedly uncertain, a conspicuous capacity for immediate firing command was presumed necessary for credible nuclear deterrence. Today, however, when there no longer exists any reasonable  basis to doubt America’s durable second-strike nuclear retaliatory capability (sometimes also called an “assured destruction” capability), there remains no good argument for continuing to grant the  president such overwhelming decisional authority.

               As corollary, more general questions now also arise:

               In our expansively imperiled democracy, should an American president ever be permitted to hold such precarious life or death power over the entire country?

                Could such an allowance still be consistent with a Constitutional  “separation of powers?”

               Can anyone reasonably believe that such existential power could ever have been favored by America’s Founding Fathers?

               The correct answers are apparent, obvious and uncomplicated. To wit:

               We can readily extrapolate from Articles I and II of the Constitution that the Founders had expressed a profound concern about Presidential power long before the advent of nuclear weapons. This concern predates even any imaginationof apocalyptic warfare possibilities,[2] before there could even be the poet’s “inaudible Sunday bomb.”

               As a legal and strategic scholar, I have been personally concerned about such fearful issues for exactly fifty years, though in a generic rather than president-specific sense. On 14 March 1976, in response to my detailed query concerning  American nuclear weapons launch authority, I received a letter from General (USA/ret.) Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The focus of this letter concerned assorted nuclear risks of US presidential irrationality. Most noteworthy, in this handwritten letter (attached hereto), was the riveting warning in General Taylor’s closing paragraph.

               Ideally, Taylor had wisely cautioned, presidential irrationality is a grave problem that should be dealt with very early on; that is, during the actual election process.

               “….the best protection,” I was informed about an irrational American president, “is not to elect one…”

               Of course, regarding America’s current nuclear security problem, the realistic prospect of a tangibly impaired American president, it’s already too late to heed General Taylor’s advice. We must inquire, therefore, with a more narrow but still fact-centered focus: “What is current US governing policy on nuclear weapons launch authority?” This query is not only vital per se, especially when Trump is being given anti-viral therapeutics that can produce genuinely manic effects, but also because  of this president’s strange and problematic attachment to his dominating Russian counterpart.

               Why does Donald J. Trump always take such great pains to exonerate Vladimir Putin from even any hint of interference or wrongdoing?

               In principle, at least, there are extant safeguards against presidential impairment. To be sure, pertinent protocols are seemingly in place. Among other things, assorted structural protections are already built into any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, including substantial and reinforcing redundancies. Nonetheless, virtually all of these safeguards are designed to become operative only at lower or sub-presidential  nuclear command levels.

                In essence, therefore, these safeguards do not apply to the Commander-in-Chief; that is, to the elected President of the United States.

                What relevant protocols do obtain? At present, there likely exist no permissible legal grounds to disobey a presidential order to use nuclear weapons. Plausibly, certain senior individuals in the designated military chain of command could sometime choose to invoke applicable “Nuremberg Obligations” (law-based obligations to disobey), but any such last-minute effort to thwart a presidential nuclear command directive would almost certainly yield to more recognizable commands of US domestic law.

               Given the vast levels of legal illiteracy in the United States, it is unlikely that a clear-thinking participant anywhere in this country’s nuclear chain of command would place sufficient personal confidence in the relatively “soft” norms of international law. This is the case even though such norms are already “incorporated” into the laws of the United States,[3] unambiguously and convincingly.

               Appropriate scenarios must now be suitably postulated and examined. Should President Trump, operating within another bewildering chaos of  his own making, issue an impaired, intemperate, irrational or even seemingly irrational nuclear command, the only way for the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Adviser and several possible others to effectively obstruct this potentially catastrophic order would be “illegal.” Under the very best of circumstances, such informal safeguards might somehow manage to work capably for a limited time, but there could be few compelling grounds for any longer-term optimism.

               Accepting the unrealistic assumption of  a “best case scenario” would represent a foolhardy approach to US nuclear security. This is especially the case at a time of worldwide microbial assault, a time when the “pandemic variable” could quickly become overriding or determinative.

                Already, the US is  navigating in “uncharted waters.” While President John F. Kennedy did engage in personal nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union back in October 1962, he had then calculated his own odds of a consequent nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.” This curiously precise calculation, corroborated both by JFK biographer Theodore Sorensen and by my own private conversations with former JCS Chair Admiral Arleigh Burke (my colleague and week-long roommate at the Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference of 1977) suggests that President Kennedy was either (a) technically irrational in imposing his Cuban “quarantine;” or (b) wittingly acting out certain untested principles of “pretended irrationality.”

               This was not during a bewildering time of “plague.”

                What are this country’s  present-day analytic “coordinates?”

               Currently, the most urgent threats of a mistaken, irrational or effectively deranged US presidential order to use nuclear weapons flow not from any “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack –  whether Russian, North Korean or even American – but instead from a potentially uncontrollable process of escalation. Back in 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “blinked” early on in the “game,” thereby preventing any mutual and irrecoverable nuclear harms. Now, however, certain escalatory initiatives undertaken by US President Donald J. Trump could express uniquely unstable decision-making processes.

               And all of this could unravel in the blink of an eye.

               What shall be done? Above all, Trump should be brought to understand that a great deal is unknown. No one can yet adequately decipher  the unprecedented risks of being locked into an escalatory dynamic from which there could be no choice save outright capitulation or nuclear war. This would not be the same crisis-setting Trump previously encountered in more narrowly commercial real-estate matters. Although Donald Trump might be well advised to seek “escalation dominance” in selected crisis negotiations, he would also need to avoid any catastrophic miscalculations.

               Is this president prepared for such daunting constraints?

               At some time or other, whether Americans like it or not, Donald Trump may have to play the challenging “game” of nuclear brinksmanship. This will not be a contest for the intellectually faint-hearted or for the analytically unprepared. To best ensure that this too-easily-distracted president’s strategic moves will prove rational, thoughtful and cumulatively cost-effective, it will first be necessary to enhance the formal decisional authority of his most senior military/defense subordinates.

               How shall this be operationalized?

               At a minimum, the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and one or two others in appropriate nuclear command positions should prepare to assume more broadly collaborative and secure judgments in extremis atomicum. Although it is reasonable to assume that some such preparations are already underway, there is also good reason to assume that this president’s  multiple insecurities and personal derangements would gravely obstruct any needed progress.

               In all such multi-layered matters, terminological distinctions must be made explicit and refined. Accordingly, whether applied to any adversarial decision-maker or to Donald J. Trump himself,  “irrational” does not mean “crazy” or “mad.”  Fateful expressions of US presidential irrationality could take various different and subtle forms. These traits, when expressed, could remain indecipherable or latent for a very long time, and include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate correctly or efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular strategic decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any pertinent structure of collective decision-making.[4]

               From the singularly critical standpoint of US nuclear weapons launch authority, legitimate reasons to worry about the dissembling Trump presidency need not hinge on any accurate expectations of “craziness” or “madness.” Rather, looking over the above list of problematic decisional traits, there is good cause not just for undefined worry (that would not represent any rational or purposeful reaction), but for visible non-partisan objectivity and for a carefully developed analytic  prudence. On this last valued criterion of presidential decision-making, Donald Trump would need to bear in mind certain  core conceptual distinctions between (1) deliberate and inadvertent nuclear war and (2) inadvertent nuclear war by accident versus inadvertent nuclear war by miscalculation.[5]

               Whatever the particular nuclear-war scenarios for which this US president must make himself prepared, a common feature would be complexity. Back in March 1976, US General Maxwell Taylor advised me by letter that the “best protection” against an irrational American president is “not to elect one.” Regarding the plainly incoherent presidency of Donald J. Trump, this optimal level of national protection is no longer available. All that we can do now is take steps to better ensure a capable and properly authoritative nuclear decisional posture.

               This stance would be one wherein a continuously misguided, Covid19-impacted  or literally deranged Donald J. Trump could be forestalled and reliably held in check. Although, in the past, any juxtaposition of “derangement” with an American president would have seemed both disrespectful and implausible, these are very different times. Now, it is the willful disregard for such a troubling juxtaposition, not its expressly purposeful suggestion, that defies US citizen responsibility. Looking ahead, such disregard could prove both unconscionable and unforgivable.

[1] This is because (1) any statement of authentic probability must be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events and because, in this case (2) there are no pertinent past events.

[2] One of this author’s earliest books was (Louis René Beres) Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980). His twelfth and latest book dealing with such issues is Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016 (2nd ed. 2018).

[3] .  In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).The more specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”  For pertinent earlier decisions by Justice John Marshall, see: The Antelope, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 66, 120 (1825); The Nereide, 13 U.S. (9 Cranch) 388, 423 (1815); Rose v. Himely, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 241, 277 (1808) and Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy, 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 64, 118 (1804).

[4] More technically this means assemblies of authoritative individuals who lack identical value systems, and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[5] See, by Professor Beres, at The Hill:  See also, Louis René Beres:

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


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