by Tom Z. Collina, October 6, 2020
President John Kennedy took powerful pain medications. President Richard Nixon was a heavy drinker. President Ronald Reagan had dementia. And now President Donald Trump has the coronavirus. These conditions can significantly impair one’s ability to think clearly. And yet, as president, each had—or, in Trump’s case, still has–the unilateral authority to launch US nuclear weapons within minutes.
President Trump is followed 24/7 by a military aide that carries the “football,” the briefcase that holds all he would need to order the immediate launch of up to 1,000 nuclear weapons, more than enough megatonnage to blow the world back into the stone age. He does not need the approval of Congress or the secretary of defense. Shockingly, there are no checks and balances on this ultimate executive power.
President Trump took the nuclear football with him to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he received treatment for COVID-19. According to Trump’s doctor, the president’s blood oxygen levels had dipped. And this, according to independent health experts, can impair decision-making ability. He is taking dexamethasone, which can cause mood swings and “frank psychotic manifestations.” Yet as far as we know, at no point did the president transfer his powers to the vice president, as allowed under the 25th Amendment.
To state the obvious, we should not entrust nuclear launch authority to someone who is not fully lucid. (Reagan transferred authority temporarily before planned surgery, as did President George W. Bush before a medical procedure that required his sedation.) A nuclear crisis can happen at any time, including at the worst possible time. If such a crisis takes place when a president’s thinking is compromised for any reason, the results could be catastrophic.