Hillary Clinton questioned whether or not Donald Trump has the temperament to handle America’s nuclear arsenal during Monday’s presidential debate.
“A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes,” Clinton said.
Throughout her campaign, Clinton regularly asks whether or not Trump should be entrusted with the nuclear football.
Clinton’s statement begs the question, does the president of the United States have the ability to unilaterally launch a nuclear strike against another country?
In the nuclear age, leaders must have the ability to respond to potential nuclear threats quickly. The system in place for a nuclear attack, be it preemptive or reactive, ensures expedience first and foremost.
Were China or Russia to fire a nuclear-tipped missile at the U.S. from a land-based firing position, the president would have roughly thirty minutes to respond. In the case of a submarine strike, the time available for the president to make a decision might be less than half that time.
The president has a card with the nuclear codes called the “biscuit.” The president is also accompanied by an aide carrying the “nuclear football,” a briefcase with the equipment for a nuclear strike.
The president has the authority to unilaterally order a nuclear strike. The Secretary of Defense, however, must confirm the order. Were the Secretary of Defense to choose not to relay the order, the president could fire the Secretary of Defense, allowing the Deputy Secretary of Defense to take over as acting Secretary of Defense and make a decision on the nuclear strike order.
The Secretary of Defense is tasked with approving the President’s nuclear strike order under the provisions of the Two-Person Concept (TPC); however, the Secretary of Defense does not legally have the ability to cancel the order.
The TPC is implemented down the line, but it is strictly for verification purposes, not approval.
The only way to prevent the president from launching a nuclear strike is to have him deemed incapacitated. Were a president to recklessly attempt to launch a preemptive strike against another country, top officials and cabinet members might choose to go this route.
Trump’s stance on nuclear weapons is somewhat unclear. “I would certainly not do first strike,” he said during the debate. “At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table,” he added.
In general, though, most people assume that by the time someone gets to the White House, they possess the wherewithal to not go completely off the rails with America’s nuclear arsenal.
While Trump could launch a nuclear strike, it is unlikely that he would. Firing off angry tweets is not anywhere close to the same thing as firing off a civilization-ending nuclear weapon.
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