The broad debate over President Trump’s fitness for the difficult and demanding office he holds has recently been reframed in a more pointed and urgent way: Does he understand, and can he responsibly manage, the most destructive nuclear arsenal on earth?
The question arises for several reasons. He has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. He has reportedly pressed for a massive buildup in the American nuclear arsenal, which already contains too many — 4,000 — warheads. And soon he will decide whether to sustain or set a course to possibly unravel the immensely important Iran nuclear deal.
Doubts about his competency were reinforced this week by Senator Bob Corker, who charged that Mr. Trump was treating his office like “a reality show” with reckless threats that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.” Mr. Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, says he is relying on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, to help “separate our country from chaos.” That is a searing indictment, and Mr. Corker is no garden-variety legislator; as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he is a respected, and largely responsible, voice on national security issues.
Further, NBC News now reports that Mr. Tillerson judged Mr. Trump a “moron” after a July 20 meeting in which Mr. Trump, apparently distressed that the arsenal has declined since the Cold War, said he wanted a nearly tenfold increase in weapons.
Mr. Trump’s policy pronouncements during the campaign betrayed either profound ignorance or dangerous nonchalance: At one point he wondered why America had nuclear weapons if it didn’t use them; at another he suggested that Japan and South Korea, which have long lived under the American security umbrella, should develop their own nuclear weapons. But nothing he said has been quite as unsettling as his recent tweetstorms about North Korea, his warnings of “fire and fury” and his quip about “the calm before the storm.”Continue reading the main story
Many have hoped, and still hope, that Mr. Trump’s aggressive posture is mostly theater, designed to slake his thirst for attention, keep adversaries off guard and force changes in their behavior by words alone. But there is no underlying strategy to his loose talk, and whatever he means by it, Congress has been sufficiently alarmed to consider legislation that would bar the president from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. It wouldn’t take away the president’s ability to defend the country.
That’s a sound idea, and could be made stronger with a requirement that the secretaries of defense and state also approve any such decision. As things stand now, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, passed when there was more concern about trigger-happy generals than elected civilian leaders, gives the president sole control. He could unleash the apocalyptic force of the American nuclear arsenal by his word alone, and within minutes.