Can Donald Trump actually press the nuclear button whenever he wants?
Technically the answer is yes. Donald Trump can launch a nuclear strike at any point, without the permission of the Pentagon.
In yet another bizarre Twitter outburst this morning, the President boasted that he has a ‘bigger and more powerful Nuclear Button’ than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Furthermore, the President claimed, his ‘Button works’.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
The tweet was the latest shot in a ping-pong match of nuclear threats between the two world leaders, and one that saw Trump branded a ‘lunatic’ and a ‘madman’ by U.S. commentators.
It followed the North Korean’s dictator’s assertion that his country’s nuclear arsenal was ‘complete’ and that his nuclear button was always within reach.
But what exactly is the truth within the POTUS’s latest declaration?
The big red button?
If Trump’s statement is taken at face value than it is untrue for one simple reason: there is no nuclear button. It’s a figure of speech.
Instead, a system more complex than a single push of the thumb is required to unleash America’s nuclear cache – now 1,000 times the size of the arsenal that destroyed Hiroshimi and Nagasaki.
In the absence of a button, the President is armed with a ‘nuclear biscuit’ and a ‘nuclear football’.
The biscuit is a plastic card on which a number of codes are written, which are used to verify the identity of the President were he to call an attack. Trump, like all U.S. Presidents, is required to carry the biscuit at all times.
He is encouraged not to repeat the mistake of predecessor Bill Clinton, who managed to lose the codes for several months, according to The Guardian.
The football is a 20kg aluminium-framed briefcase, which accompanies the serving POTUS every time he leaves the White House, carried by one of five military aides.
Inside the football is stashed a radio transceiver and guide to carrying out a nuclear attack, including a list of options for retaliation, another list of site locations, and a card containing the authentication codes required to initiate a strike.
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For Trump to push his figurative red button he would need to prove his identity to the Pentagon using the codes on the biscuit. Some warheads could then be launched within minutes.
Can Trump launch an attack whenever he wants?
As part of his role as President of the United States, Donald Trump is also the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army and Navy.
This allows him to order an unprovoked attack without a congressional declaration of war.
In November 2017, a Senate committee held the first congressional hearing in more than four decades calling into question a president’s authority to launch a strike.
The hearing was lead by Bob Corker, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who had warned a few months previously that his president could be putting the U.S. on the path ‘to World War III’.
During the hearing, retired General Robert Kehler opened up a potential grey area, saying that the military has the power to refuse what it considers an illegal order – including a nuclear one.
‘It’s important to remember that the United States military doesn’t blindly follow orders,’ he said.
‘A presidential order to employ U.S. nuclear weapons must be legal.’
A number of senators called for Trump’s power to be curbed through legislation, requiring further checks and balances to be applied to decisions pertaining to nuclear war.
But Mr Corker’s conclusion as to the outcome of the hearing was inconclusive.
He told reporters: ‘I do not see a legislative solution today, but that doesn’t mean that over the course of the next several months one might develop.’