Trump: Cautionary Tale Why Presidents Shouldn’t Have Unilateral Power to Launch Nuclear War

Interview with Tom Collina, director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, conducted by Scott Harris

When President Trump checked into Walter Reed Military Medical Center on Oct.2, after being diagnosed with the coronavirus, like all presidents he was followed by a military aide that carries the  “nuclear football,” the secure briefcase with the key codes and protocols necessary for him unilaterally declare a nuclear war by ordering the U.S. military to launch of up to 1,000 nuclear weapons, more than enough to destroy the world.

Although Trump had suffered with low blood oxygen levels and was taking the drug dexamethasone, a corticosteroid which can cause mood swings and “frank psychotic manifestations,” the president never temporarily transferred his powers to the vice president as permitted under the 25th Amendment.

During his time in the hospital and immediately after, Trump exhibited behavior that some observers labeled as “’Roid Rage,” aggression and anger some people experience when taking steroid medications. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Tom Collina, direcdtor of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, who talks about the extreme risk of giving U.S. presidents unchecked, unilateral power to launch a nuclear war, as discussed in his recent article titled, “Trump’s COVID infection shows why it’s time to retire the nuclear football.”

TOM COLLINA: It would’ve been nice to see President Trump transfer authority when he was at Walter Reed Hospital, because not only did his blood oxygen level go down, according to his doctor — which affects judgment, but he’s on heavy, heavy steroids. The most concerning one is dexamethasone, which can cause mood swings and psychotic disorders. And, you know, so if a president is undergoing those kinds of treatments, that kind of situation, (his) decision-making is impaired and he should transfer that authority. And that would have been the right thing to do in this situation. But unfortunately, the president did not do that. I mean, there were concerns about Trump and his judgment and his erratic impulsive nature, his lack of attention to detail, his reluctance to speak with experts or take expert advice. So there are concerns about his judgments about nuclear policy, separate from the recent COVID situation, right?

And I think this is true about Trump, but it’s also true about presidents the further you get away from the Cold War, where I think presidents were much more up to the level of details and expertise necessary to be the sole decider on nuclear weapons. When they really thought it might be a possibility that the weapons would be used, they would study this much more closely. And I think the further we’ve gotten away from the Cold War, presidents just don’t take this possibility all that seriously. So they don’t study up for it. They don’t prepare for it.

SCOTT HARRIS: Is there any pressure that could be brought to bear on a president to relinquish that authority when they’re in the midst of a medical or mental health crisis?

TOM COLLINA: You know, the idea is to deal with it before you get there. Right? And there was nothing unpredictable, I mean, President Trump knew he was going to the hospital. He knew the impacts of COVID, he knew that presumably his doctors knew that he would be taking these steroids. So it was predictable that he would be undergoing decision-making issues. And so therefore before you get to that point, right, you want to deal with these with these issues. But there’s a broader point here, which is that, in my view and in Secretary (of Defense William) Perry’s view, who co-authored the book with me, we really feel strongly that no president should have the unilateral authority and the world because presidents don’t know when to give up that authority. I mean, it’s a powerful thing, right? It’s kind of like a drug in and of itself. Presidents are very reluctant to give it up.

You know, I can go back through history. President Nixon was drinking heavily at the end of his administration before the impeachment hearings and was drunk in office and didn’t give up the authority. And there are a number of stories where presidents should have given up that authority and did not. And even a healthy president — I mean, you have to imagine what powers — we’re putting one person in control essentially of civilization and the future of life on earth. And they’re a fallible human, just like the rest of us. And so we ask ourselves the question, why are we putting one fallible human in charge of the state of the world? And particularly in the case of Donald Trump, why are we putting one man on mood-altering medications as the only thing that stands between us and nuclear war. It just doesn’t make sense.

SCOTT HARRIS: Tom, I did want to ask you about the real goal of this article here in challenging the president’s unilateral power to launch a nuclear war or nuclear retaliation in the case of an attack on the United States. What is the blueprint that you are thinking about here? What are the alternatives to a president having his and only his or her finger on the button?

TOM COLLINA: Great question. So three parts to this solution. One is that the president should give up the sole authority and share that authority with Congress. To me, that’s a much more democratic way to do it. And the current system that we have is frankly undemocratic because it’s Congress that under the Constitution, is supposed to declare war. Yet, we have the president has the ability to launch nuclear weapons first out of the blue, without consulting Congress at all, which to me is the ultimate declaration of war.

So we need to make this process more democratic, bring it back in line with the Constitution. So the president should have to consult with and get the approval of Congress before using nuclear weapons first. You could also just have a complete, no first-use ban. In other words, the United States could never use nuclear weapons first in any situation — that would also take care of the blundering into nuclear war under a false alarm danger.

And then third, we would like to retire the weapons that are most vulnerable to an attack and create this false alarm danger. That is the land-based ballistic missiles. We can retire them. We’d be safer without them. And we’d certainly be a lot better off financially because the Air Force is just starting a process to rebuild the entire arsenal of these weapons, to the tune of about $260 billion over the next few decades. So we think it would be much smarter to not do that, to retire these weapons and take that money and spend it on things where we really have challenges like addressing COVID-19, climate change, racial injustice, you know, the things that are really on the public’s mind right now, and that we need to solve and not spend on these weapons that actually will be making us less safe.

For more information, visit The Plowshares Fund at ploughshares.org.

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