U.S. leaders have almost unchecked powers in a crisis. But the bureaucracy has ways to gum up the system.
This week, Americans learned from a book by one of the country’s preeminent journalists and from an extraordinary opinion piece in the New York Times that members of President Donald Trump’s own administration are actively trying to stymie some of his policies—decisions and orders they see as irresponsible or even dangerous.
But what can Cabinet secretaries and other government officials actually do if the president undertakes something genuinely reckless—an unwarranted military attack or even a nuclear strike? Plenty, as it turns out, although they can’t always do it legally or constitutionally.
With Trump, the question has loomed large almost since he stepped off that escalator in his eponymous New York tower in 2015 to announce his run for president. But it took on new urgency when an anonymous senior administration official wrote in the Times this week that an internal “resistance” was “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
It’s not clear which parts of that agenda the writer is referring to, but it is highly likely that some of them have had to do with decisions on the use of force. Indeed, based on the new book by Bob Woodward and information from other sources, it appears that the Pentagon and CIA both have been defying or slow-walking Trump’s more militant impulses almost since the start of his presidency.
Indeed, based on the new book by Bob Woodward and information from other sources, it appears that the Pentagon and CIA both have been defying or slow-walking Trump’s more militant impulses almost since the start of his presidency.
How has this worked? Legally, the president of the United States enjoys nearly unchecked power to use force when and where he wants—with one of the few restraints being the 1973 War Powers Act and its constitutionally questionable provision giving him a 60-day time limit before congressional approval is required.
“Constitutionally the president is commander in chief of the armed forces without qualification, and no subordinate can put in place an effective veto on his orders,” said Jeh Johnson, a former homeland security secretary and Defense Department general counsel.
This is especially true of America’s nuclear arsenal and is partly a holdover from the Cold War, when a fast response time was a key part of U.S. deterrence strategy; hence the nuclear “football” that accompanies the president everywhere. Nuclear fail-safe protocols for executing commands are entirely concerned with confirming the president’s identity, not his sanity. Thus, technically, Trump could order a nuclear strike almost entirely on his own.
“For better or worse, our constitutional system assumes a rational and mature actor at the top,” Johnson said.
Little of this system has changed, though more than a quarter-century has passed since the Soviet Union disappeared. Last year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by retiring Trump critic Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican, held a hearing to consider changes to the president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons—including requiring the president to get the Pentagon chief’s approval. But Congress has not acted.
“I’m scared shitless. I think we’re probably now as close as we were as during Able Archer [the 1983 nuclear exercise in which the United States and Russia almost accidentally went to war] or the Cuban missile crisis to something happening,” said Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer who specializes in illegal covert war.
“A guy with this power who could do anything at a moment of whim and doesn’t think these things through.”