President Trump’s dire threat to North Korea that it risked “fire and fury like the world has never seen” sounded like a threat of nuclear war — and a president does have the power to order a nuclear attack, experts say.
Trump has “unchecked authority to order the use of conventional or nuclear weapons against North Korea,” Bruce G. Blair, a nuclear security expert at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, said in an e-mail. “I believe that both options are being prepared right now.”
“Trump can order a nuclear strike,” Alex Wellerstein, an assistant professor of nuclear weapons at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, said in an e-mail. “The US system of nuclear chain of command is very clear that the President, and only the President, is in the position of authorizing a nuclear strike.”
Massachusetts US Senator Edward Markey in January introduced a bill, along with Representative Ted Lieu of California, that would strip Trump of his power to launch a nuclear attack without a declaration of war by Congress.
The bill, introduced before tensions had ratcheted up with North Korea, was considered mostly a political statement with little chance of passage.
Markey issued a statement Tuesday renewing his call to pass the bill, which has made little headway in Congress.
He said no “preemptive nuclear fire or fury” should be wreaked on North Korea without congressional approval.
“No human being should have the sole authority to initiate an unprovoked nuclear war. Not any American President, and certainly not President Donald Trump. As long as that power exists, it must be put in check. That’s why we need legislation to cement this commonsense national security protection into law,” he said.
Trump’s warning that “North Korea had best not make any more threats to the United States” or it would face fiery consequences came after a new report Tuesday said US intelligence believes North Korea has produced a nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, a key milestone in becoming a nuclear power.
Asked about Trump’s comments at a press briefing, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said his remarks were “strong and obvious,” but declined to elaborate.
Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the nonprofit Arms Control Association, said Trump’s command of the US nuclear arsenal “is another reason why deescalation is critical. If conflict erupts, two inexperienced leaders with poor impulse control have nuclear weapons at their fingertips. That is a chilling scenario that the international community would do best to avoid.”
Davenport said Trump’s comments were “ill-advised and inflammatory.”
“Loose talk inciting conflict will only continue to spur North Korea to continue advancing its nuclear and missile programs. Pressure alone is not going to reduce the threat posed by Pyongyang,” she said. “Talks are necessary.”
Blair said he believed that Trump advisers such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford would advise against a first strike.
In November, Blair had warned in a piece in Politico that the “trajectory of this crisis is ominous, and it could easily escalate to the brink of nuclear use.”