Updated | One nightmare scenario goes like this: Donald Trump emerges from his White House bedroom in the middle of the night, cellphone in hand, enraged by the latest taunt from North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He spots the military aide sitting in the corridor with a black valise in his lap. It’s called the nuclear football.
“I’m gonna take care of this son of a bitch once and for all,” Trump growls. “Big-time. Gimme the codes.”
The aide cracks open the valise and hands the president a loose-leaf binder with a colorful menu of Armageddon options. They range from total annihilation plans for Russia and China down to a variety of strikes tailored to North Korea.
“I’ll take that one,” Trump says. The aide then hands him an envelope with a set of numbers and letters, the ones that verify it’s really him when he calls Defense Secretary James Mattis. It’s the same code that will go down to theater commanders, B-1 bombers, Wyoming missile silos and submarines lurking off North Korea.
“Do it,” he tells Mattis. “Wipe him the hell out.”
What was once just a nervous joke among Washington policymakers and military experts when Trump ran for the presidency has suddenly crept closer to a horrendous range of possibilities, judging from a Newsweek survey of former Pentagon officials and experts.
And no one knows where the confrontation is headed after weeks of increasingly personal insults and military provocations from both sides.
On September 26, four days after the Pentagon sent a flight of B-1 bombers and fighter escorts off North Korea in a display of military force, Pyongyang “moved a small number of fighter jets, external fuel tanks and air-to-air missiles to a base on its eastern coast,” according to reports. Trump threatened Pyongyang once again, saying he was prepared for “a military option” to solve the crisis, which would be “devastating.”
Analysts with long experience in the region say they fear an accident—a collision of jets or ships, a wayward artillery shell—could quickly cause the situation to spiral, especially with Trump and North Korean officials exchanging insults. In his United Nations speech on September 19, Trump called Kim “Rocket Man,” followed later by “Little Rocket Man.” Kim responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” a word long out of use that sent millions scurrying for their dictionaries. (It means someone decrepit and senile.) Trump then vowed that Kim and his foreign minister "won't be around much longer.”
“I think this tit for tat Trump has ginned up is not only dangerous and unnecessary but creating an escalation spiral that is increasing the odds of miscalculation,” says Robert Manning, a former senior U.S. intelligence expert on Korea and strategic weapons in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. “It’s not just a war of words,” he tells Newsweek. “We keep flying B-1s up their kazoo.” That, along with Trump calling Kim names, says Manning, now a senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, “inflates” Kim’s ego. It’s “mind-bogglingly stupid.”
As if to make the point, on September 25, North Korea’s foreign minister buffed Trump’s crude threats into a formal declaration of war. “That’s absurd,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. The regime also vowed to “take countermeasures, including the right to shoot down bombers.”
But so far, there have been no signs North Korea is preparing to attack Seoul, U.S. bases in the region or U.S. ally Japan, even as it threatens to explode a hydrogen bomb somewhere over the Pacific. With the acrimony deepening, however, an increasing number of Washington veterans now fear something less lethal but profoundly dangerous: a constitutional crisis, provoked by an impulsive Trump order in the middle of the night for a pre-emptive strike. “Someone in the chain would say no,” declares a former senior Pentagon official, sharing his views with Newsweek on condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity. “That’s what I believe, having worked with these guys”—meaning military leaders from Mattis on down to the U.S. forces commander in South Korea, General Vincent Brooks.
“It would be really hard for Trump to be capricious about a spur-of-the-moment attack,” the former official continues. “He'd have to make it a major strategy thing that's been long planned, in consultation with Mattis and Dunford.” General Joseph Dunford is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The former official adds that Brooks, especially, who has won a wide circle of admirers for his forthright yet nuanced views on the intersection of domestic politics and military strategy, would not follow such a midnight order. “My personal opinion is that if Brooks truly felt Trump was just saying, ‘Fuck it, I want to attack today’—that there was not a truly imminent threat to U.S. forces and the homeland, he might refuse the order.” Brooks could not be immediately reached for comment.
It’s not likely a Trump order would get down that far, analysts say. People who know Mattis tell Newsweek he would resign rather than carry out an impulsive order from Trump to attack North Korea, with nuclear weapons or not. Trump could fire Mattis, but the media and Congress would likely hear about it in a nanosecond, setting off “a political firestorm and even a constitutional crisis that could prevent prompt execution of the order,” says Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.
"POTUS doesn't need to call the SecDef at all to do this,” says Stephen Schwartz, editor and co-author of Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940. “Although he’d presumably be included on the conference call if this weren't a middle-of-the-night, spur-of-the-moment thing.” And as nuclear weapons historian Alex Wellerstein discovered in a 2015 U.S. Air Force document last spring, the president can bypass the secretary of defense altogether and “direct the use of nuclear weapons through…the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the combatant commanders and, ultimately, to the forces in the field exercising direct control of the weapons."
Such unfettered access to nuclear weapons—and the potential controversy it could create—has prompted analysts to recall the crisis President Richard Nixon sparked in 1973 by ordering his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire the special prosecutor overseeing investigations into the crimes that became known as Watergate. Richardson refused and resigned, and so did his deputy. Nixon finally found somebody to carry out that deed, but the move backfired, inflaming the impeachment drive and forcing him from office 10 months later.
Even more relevant to Trump, says a growing chorus of commentators, is another incident from Nixon’s final days, when, according to various accounts, his chief of staff Alexander Haig, an army general, asked military commanders to check back if they received any unusual directives from the deeply depressed, sometimes drunk president.
Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, tells Newsweek that John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, “needs to take a page from that...and just be sure that he's in the loop when it comes to the nuclear football.”
There’s no rule stopping Trump from firing Mattis and continuing down the chain of command until he finds someone willing to attack North Korea, analysts say. Any defense secretary, notes Kathleen Hicks, a former principal deputy undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, is merely “a check in the system against overenthusiasm” on the president’s part for letting loose the nukes. Under the rules of the National Command Authority, the only weapon Mattis has to stop Trump’s launch order is persuasion. If he blocks it, “then the President may, in his sole discretion, fire” him, it says, and tap the next person in the chain of command to carry it out. If he wants, Trump can reach right down to a general heading a regional command. The Uniform Code of Military Justice requires sworn officers to carry out a bad but lawful order, setting up the kind of dilemma dramatized in the hit 1992 court martial drama A Few Good Men.
“To say that the secretary of defense and his subordinates have a legal duty to comply with presidential orders is not to say that they should do so,” Jack Goldsmith, who held high positions in the Justice and Defense departments, wrote recently. But “they have to be prepared to accept the consequences of defiance,” which include “resigning...resisting until fired, informing congressional leaders (in or out of public), or quietly coordinating with the Vice President and others for presidential removal under the 25th Amendment.”
“All of this is uncharted territory,” says Reif.
Compounding the legal, military and political complexities of the situation, some analysts envision Kim hitting first with a limited strike, such as a barrage of rocket and artillery fire on Seoul, which would kill tens of thousands of people, prompting U.S. and South Korean counterfire. But then Kim could sit back and let Trump make the next big move. “President Trump would then be faced with an unimaginable decision: continue the attack and see potentially millions more die, or give in to Kim’s demands and stop,” wrote retired Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis (who served under White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster in Iraq). Given North Korea’s hardened defenses, massive rocket supplies and nuclear weaponry, “the interests of the United States would be gravely harmed no matter what choice Trump makes at that point,” Davis says.
Judging by the erratic leadership he’s demonstrated so far, Trump doesn’t look prepared to carefully weigh an array of military options that include the use of nuclear weapons. No president really is, Whipple says. “Every White House chief of staff can probably tell you in chilling detail about the day the chairman of the joint chiefs came in and explained to the president and his chief the operation of the nuclear codes. It's a gut-check moment for every chief and obviously, one would hope, every president.”
Even some of Trump’s most accomplished, sophisticated fans had little idea of the license a president has to unleash a civilization-ending nuclear war, Whipple tells Newsweek. When he was on a trip with former George W. Bush chief of staff Andrew Card to give a talk, they encountered a corporate CEO who said he planned to vote for Trump. “And I said, ‘You know you're giving this guy the nuclear codes, and there's nothing to prevent him from using them?’ And he said, ‘Well, I'm not too worried about that.’”
Whipple turned to Card and said, “Andy, tell him.” Card then told the CEO, “in chilling detail,” about the guidance Bush got on the eve of his 2001 inauguration, and how nobody had any authority to stop him from activating the football. “And Andy said to this guy, ‘There's nothing—nothing—to prevent the president from doing this on his own.’” Card did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.
California Representative Ted Lieu and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, both Democrats, want to take the freelance nuclear option out of Trump’s hands. In January, they introduced a bill that would prohibit a president from launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike without a congressional declaration of war. It’s not going anywhere in the Republican-controlled Congress.
“I would certainly not do first strike,” Trump declared a year ago during one of his presidential debates with Hillary Clinton. But moments later, he circled back with a contradictory response: “At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can't take anything off the table.” Since then, with every North Korean provocation, he’s increasingly reverted to the “fire and fury” he pledged in August to rain down on Pyongyang if it endangers U.S. interests.
Nobody knows how he’ll feel when he wakes up to find that Kim has tested another H-bomb, flung a missile over Japan or needled him with another insult. All we know is that when he wanders out in his bathrobe and opens the nuclear football, he’s got the keys to Armageddon in his hands.
This story has been updated to include clarification from Stephen Schwartz and Alex Wallerstein on the secretary of defense’s absence of authority in the chain of command on nuclear strikes.