After President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, he was prescribed powerful steroids. Among other things, this has raised important questions about giving presidents unilateral control over nuclear weapons.
While Congress or military leaders are involved in any other decision to use of military force, the president can legally order a nuclear strike on his own. “Congress doesn’t have any role in this at the moment,” says Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “They’re not expected to be consulted.”
Unitary presidential control of nuclear weapons dates from the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and the practice has been cemented over time. This is partly a product of the general shift toward a stronger executive, and partly just an issue of timing: If the missiles are coming, you can’t call up Congress.
Trump has been given many different medical treatments, among them dexamethasone. According to The Washington Post, this drug’s possible side-effects include “psychic derangements” and “frank psychotic manifestations.” And where other presidents, such as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, temporarily transferred power to their vice presidents while they were under the influence of powerful pharmaceuticals, Trump did not.
Psychosis and nuclear weapons are a potentially dangerous combination. Even if the possibility of a rogue president ordering a nuclear strike remains a remote possibility, Wellerstein says that policies should be changed to make sure someone else is included in such a monumental decision. Barring absolute extreme circumstances, he suggests, “the secretary of defense’s positive assent” ought to be necessary before a nuclear launch can be legally ordered.
In the absence of a change to the official rules, Wellerstein says, Pentagon officials and members of the presidential cabinet would be left to “try to talk him down out of this.” But without a clear violation of the laws of war, and without the invocation of the 25th Amendment, military officials have no power to disobey that order.
What’s more likely is a scenario where a flashpoint occurs, and a president under the influence of this sort of medication chooses an escalatory response.
“I consider that a much more realistically dangerous scenario,” Wellerstein says.
Regardless of the president’s health status, the Cold War mentality that emphasizes first-strike policies designed for a different era of geopolitical concerns should be revisited and revised. Even under the best of circumstances, unilateral presidential control over nuclear weapons is risky. And there are secondary considerations as well: At least one of the five military aides to the president has reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus. Among other tasks, those aides carry the nuclear football.
“The system we have is very much a product of the 1940s, with some modifications in the 1950s and the 1960s,” Wellerstein says. “And we don’t live in the 1940s, ’50s, or ’60s. So I think we should feel free to question whether the system we have now is the ideal system for our present day.”