Explainer

What Could Stop an ‘Unhinged’ U.S. President From Ordering a Nuclear Strike?

Not a lot, it turns out.

U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump concludes his remarks after speaking from the White House on Jan. 8, 2020. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Amid a renewed drive to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump after a mob stormed the Capitol building this week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put out a stunning statement on Friday calling on the U.S. military to look into possible precautions to prevent the commander in chief from military action or ordering a nuclear strike. 

The statement, which came on the heels of Pelosi’s second conversation with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley in as many days, sent the already-crazed U.S. capital into a tailspin, but it wasn’t immediately clear how the Pentagon responded. 

“The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy,” Pelosi said in a statement that also charged Trump with “dangerous and seditious acts.”

A spokesman for Milley said that Pelosi initiated the phone call and that the top U.S. military official “answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority,” but the spokesman did not offer any further details. 

To help answer the questions of what can (and can’t) be done to check the president’s power to order a nuclear strike, Foreign Policy took a look at how a possible decision might be reached.


What can the military and Congress do to stop the president from ordering a strike? 

Legally speaking, not much, if anything. Neither Pelosi nor Milley is in the chain of command to make the decision over whether to employ nuclear weapons; that authority rests with Trump and the U.S. defense secretary, who would act together in making such a move. While officials such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the American nuclear triad, are charged with transmitting orders for the use of those weapons and advise the president on a launch, Trump would not need the agreement of the military or Congress to strike. Asked on Monday by reporters whether he would follow an order from Trump to launch a nuclear weapon against Iran, Stratcom chief Adm. Charles Richard said he would “follow any legal order I am given” and added that the system of nuclear command and control has “served us well for 70 years.”

While experts agree that there’s no way to challenge the president’s authority to order a strike, not everyone is as sure as Richard that it’s a good idea. “The president has sole, unfettered authority to order the use of nuclear weapons with no ‘second vote’ required,” tweeted Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “If you think that’s crazy, I agree with you. But many people being appointed by Biden to national security jobs disagree with us.”


Where is this concern coming from? 

It’s not entirely clear. Though the New York Times reported in November 2020 that Trump sought options to strike at Iran’s nuclear program just days after his election loss, the conversations apparently died out, even as the United States sent nuclear-capable bombers to the Middle East around the anniversary of the U.S. drone strike that killed the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, in January 2020. But Pelosi’s statement comes on the heels of reports that Trump appears increasingly unhinged after the assault on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, and the speaker also included threats to impeach the commander in chief—now backed by more than 200 members of Congress—if he doesn’t immediately leave office, or if the cabinet decides not to invoke the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and remove him.


How quickly could Trump order a strike? 

It depends on the scenario. Military aides to the president carry at all times a briefcase with the nuclear launch codes that is popularly known as the “football.” That allows the commander in chief to quickly order a nuclear strike, verified by an identification card held by the White House that confirms to Pentagon officials the order is legitimate. Lewis, the nonproliferation expert, wrote in Foreign Policy in 2016 that the president might have as little as eight minutes to decide whether to strike, though nuclear strike plans laid out by the Pentagon also give the commander in chief the ability to approve a delayed attack or counterattack. Land-based nuclear-tipped missiles can be fired within two minutes of an immediate launch order from the U.S. president, while submarine-launched missiles can fire within 15 minutes, according to the Congressional Research Service

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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