WASHINGTON ― For those who watched President Donald Trump’s tirade in Phoenix Tuesday night and his angry news conference in New York a week earlier, and then recall his Twitter threats about nuclear weapons earlier this month, there is some good news: A president can be removed from office if his Cabinet deems him mentally unstable.
And then there’s the worst news: Even a process that would effectively take the nuclear launch codes away from Trump far faster than impeachment ever could still may not be fast enough.
“Terrifying, when you stop and think about it,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow who studies presidential powers at the Brookings Institution. “The ability of the president to order a nuclear attack is almost certainly faster than the ability to assemble the Cabinet and poll it.”
Trump’s recent behavior, culminating in the unrestrained, 77-minute rally in Phoenix, has some commentators wondering whether Trump is fit to serve as president. “I found this downright scary and disturbing,” former intelligence chief James Clapper said on CNN of the rally. “I worry about frankly the access to nuclear codes. In a fit of pique, if he decides to do something about [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Un, there’s actually very little to stop him.”
Trump’s statements on North Korea in recent weeks are unprecedented from an American president since the dawn of the nuclear age seven decades ago. But the White House and its defenders paint them as deliberately tough to send a strong message to Kim. They say the more temperate remarks from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are part of a carefully thought-out strategy.
Others worry that the reality is exactly as it seems: A president incapable of managing his temper is lashing out recklessly on something that could bring global catastrophe.
“I think we’re so at risk right now. So at risk,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican political consultant with a background in defense intelligence. “It’s pretty obvious that everyone around him knows that he’s crazy. His team knows that he’s not mentally stable.”
Nuclear Crisis Fades, But Threat Remains
The potential problem arises from Trump’s personality colliding with a nuclear strategy based on having rational actors on both sides. Even at the height of the Cold War, the “mutually assured destruction” theory assumed that leaders of the Soviet Union and the U.S. would not risk their countries’ very existence for the possibility of some relatively minor geopolitical gain.
Congress in the 1950s ceded its war-making authority when it came to nuclear weapons on the argument that it was impossible to insert a legislative body into the decision-making process when missiles launched from Russia could hit the United States in a mere 30 minutes. That time constraint, in fact, gave us the system still in use now, in which the president can, by himself, order the use of nuclear weapons using codes that are carried by a military aide in his immediate presence at all times.
These coded orders are transmitted to a war room in the Pentagon, where the officer on duty relays them to the appropriate missile silos, bombers and submarines. The entire process was designed to take only a few minutes, on the idea that deterrence was increased if the Soviets knew that a retaliatory strike would be underway before their first warheads even landed.
That game theory starts to break down, though, when one of the participants does not behave rationally, and it falls apart completely when both do not.
“When you have two irrational actors, it’s kind of scary,” Wilson said.
Earlier this month, following North Korea’s test of a long range intercontinental ballistic missile able to hit most U.S. cities and a report that its military was capable of making nuclear bombs small enough to fit on them, Trump stated via Twitter, “My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”
Kim responded by threatening to fire missiles all around the Western Pacific island of Guam, an unincorporated United States territory and home to American Air Force and Navy bases.
And Trump responded to that by tweeting, “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”
In reality, there was no out-of-the-ordinary military activation. Shore leaves were not canceled. Neither military families nor State Department staff in South Korea were sent home.
Tillerson defended Trump’s statements as something Kim would readily understand, but emphasized that Americans should sleep soundly and that efforts to resolve the situation diplomatically were continuing. Mattis also used harsh language but ― unlike his boss ― made clear that the threatened actions would take place only if Kim acted aggressively.
The crisis appears to have faded thanks, in part, to the fallout from a violent white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s response to it. However, the president’s critics continue to worry that Trump could still be goaded into actually using nuclear weapons against Kim ― with little recourse to stop him.
“There is nothing unlawful about the president using nukes,” said the Brookings Institution’s Hudak. “Ultimately he is the commander in chief and they can’t say no to him.”
Invoking The 25th Amendment
The one legal way to block Trump would involve Pence invoking the 25th Amendment, which was ratified in response to President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. When William Henry Harrison died just one month after his 1841 inauguration, Vice President John Tyler assumed the presidency ― even though the Constitution did not specifically state that this should happen. Tyler’s actions set the precedent for every in-office presidential death since, and the 25th Amendment codified the process.
The amendment, though, also addressed a president who became incapacitated ― the way Woodrow Wilson did in 1919 after suffering a stroke. His wife and doctor covered up his condition, essentially leaving the country without a president until Wilson’s partial recovery in 1920. The new amendment spelled out that the vice president should take on presidential duties, should something similar happen again.
Under drafters’ language, the vice president starts this process by taking the question to the Cabinet, a majority of whom would have to concur for the transfer of power to happen. The president could rescind that by declaring that “no inability exists.” Should the vice president and Cabinet agree a second time that the president is, in fact, “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” the question is thrown to Congress, which would have three weeks to vote by two-third majorities to replace the president.
During that interim period, the vice president would remain in power ― meaning, if it were to happen with Trump over nuclear weapons, Pence would presumably have some time to defuse the situation.
“It would be a last resort option, the vice president essentially overthrowing the president,” Hudak said.
One big question is whether, in a crisis atmosphere, Pence would be able to pull it off. It would take just minutes for Trump to access the codes carried in the satchel nicknamed the “nuclear football,” whereas lining up votes of Cabinet members would almost certainly take longer.
“On paper, Trump could move faster than they could,” said Bruce Blair, who served as an Air Force launch silo commander in the 1970s and now studies nuclear weapons decision-making at Princeton University.
But Blair noted that the amendment does not specify how the votes had to be gathered. “If they were desperate enough, I would think they’d find a way to move the papers around and the phone calls around… If they came to believe that the man might order the use of nuclear weapons in a rash and reckless way, they might move very quickly to preempt him,” he said. “It would be fairly ad hoc.”
The fundamental question, of course, is whether Pence would take such a step. Pence’s office did not respond to a HuffPost request for comment on that point, and the vice president has since the day Trump put him on the ticket last year always defended his boss.
How Pence might react if nuclear war was a possible consequence is speculative, though some Republicans believe he would take action. One House member who was close to Pence during his tenure there said the vice president would likely not act on his own ― “unless Mattis and [National Security Adviser H.R.] McMaster give that advice,” the member said on condition of anonymity.
A political consultant close to the Trump White House, also speaking on condition of anonymity so he could speak freely about the president, agreed. “Gen. Kelly will sound an alarm if he needs to,” the consultant said, referring to new chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine general.
The consultant did not think Trump would be reckless, but said critics should find some peace of mind in the presence of Kelly, McMaster and Mattis: “You should take heart that the president has surrounded himself with generals,” the consultant said.