Could President Trump Tweet Out the Nuclear Launch Codes?

April 29, 2020 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Donald TrumpMilitaryDefenseNuclear WeaponsWar

Could President Trump Tweet Out the Nuclear Launch Codes?

The National Interest talked nuclear command and control with Professor Alex Wellerstein. 

The ambiguity thing is interesting to me because we've also seen Trump issue ambiguous orders in public, and the military gets very creative with how it interprets it. Because I cover Iran, I have another Iran-related example that comes to mind.

Last week, he said that is ordering the Navy to “shoot down and destroy” Iranian boats that get too close to U.S. ships, and then the Pentagon turned it into a reminder that “our ships retain the right of self-defense.”

Do you see any situations where the President says something ambiguous, and then the military has to figure out whether he meant to use nuclear weapons, or some other similarly drastic measure?

I worry less about that only because I don't see the modern military as actually being interested in using nuclear weapons.

They talk about deterrence. They want new toys. They like deploying them in new missions. That makes sense to me, given the way their institutional reward system works.

I don't see them at all taking the initiative on the actual use of weapons. All of their doctrine—and I've met people who are part of this system, who are quite earnest about this—they all emphasize that the only person who makes this decision is the President of the United States, not them.

It's not the role of modern military of the United States. and they're not that interested in making that decision. The modern military has long adapted to the idea that nuclear weapons are a relatively clunky think to imagine using in practice. They might work as a strategic threat, but the United States benefits a lot more from not using them, and from using our many conventional options that are very diverse and capable, instead.

If we normalize the use of nuclear weapons, we are a very big target. Our military is, and our country is. So I don't worry so much about that.

Let's imagine Trump tweets, "we're going to wipe them off the map." That's not the same thing as an order. I don't think the military would interpret that as an order. I think they would really need it to be unambiguously not even just a request, but a specific order before they're going to move forward.

If they get anything that they wonder if that's an order, they're going to want that clarified, not just because it's a good idea, but because they don't want to be in a position of doing something that's not what the President wanted.

They're going to want it to be very much on the record of exactly—even if you said, "please use nuclear weapons," they're going to want to know exactly how you want them used. I think they're going to want to know what yields. They have a lot of options they can give the President, and they're going to want to know which option he wants.

So I don't worry about that. I do worry about—it's somewhat clear that the President and the military have a complicated communications relationship.

There have a number of things that the President announced via Twitter, that he clearly did not get full consent from the military on or did not even inform them on…

I do worry about that, because it puts a strain on the civilian-military relations, because that's core to the nuclear weapons question. But I don't worry about the military taking initiative about this.

My sense of the American military is that they have no interest in being the next country to use nuclear weapons, and would do what they could largely to avoid that in most situations.

So there's no ambiguous situation. The President would have to say, "I want you to use nuclear weapons in this specific way." He can't just tweet out, "nuke North Korea."

There are some interesting hypotheticals about the "channel" by which you deliver this order can be pretty—there's many ways in which it can happen, because the whole system has been set up to assume the worst.

Maybe your secure phone lines don't work. Maybe your regular phone lines don't work. You could imagine a situation in which Twitter is the only channel by which the President can communicate with the military, and he would tweet out an order on it, but it would have to be a very well-formed order.

It couldn't be "nuke North Korea." It would have to be, "implement Warplan XYZ," and separate from that, the one check there is, there needs to be a way to confirm that the President is the President.

That's what the so-called nuclear codes are for. You could hypothetically deliver those on Twitter, but that would be pretty weird. It's a pretty out-there idea, but there isn't any, to my knowledge, any channel by which you deliver those authentication codes.

But if the President's Twitter account suddenly started tweeting legitimate nuclear authentication codes and nuclear launch orders, I think that would raise a lot of questions for the military.

Even in that situation, assuming they don't see incoming missiles coming at them—which is to say, they're not under any belief that this is a true, obviously unambiguous nuclear war situation—I think that would go through rather extreme efforts to contact the White House, or the Secretary of Defense, and/or anybody around there, just to find out if this was real or not.

That would definitely be a weird way for the world to end.

We live in weird times!

Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @matthew_petti.