Our existential ‘what if?’ question

Yeah, I know Brexit is a big deal, but this is a lot bigger: James Clapper, a former Director of National Intelligence, commented yesterday on Trump’s rant in Arizona:

“Having some understanding of the levers that a president can exercise, I worry about, frankly, the access to the nuclear codes,” Clapper told CNN, pointing to the current stand-off with North Korea.

If “in a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong-un, there’s actually very little to stop him. The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”

Clapper did not mention Richard Nixon, who was involved in a tense stand-off with North Korea in 1969, after the regime shot down a US spy plane. Nixon is reported to have gotten drunk and ordered a tactical nuclear strike, which was only averted by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.

Nixon’s biographers Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan quoted a top CIA official, George Carver, as saying: “The joint chiefs were alerted and asked to recommend targets, but Kissinger got on the phone to them. They agreed not to do anything until Nixon sobered up in the morning.”

This is the first moment that I’ve ever been glad that Henry Kissinger existed.

Oh, and btw, here’s the process for launching a nuclear strike. The whole logic of Mutual Assured Destruction is that both sides must believe that the other side might actually do it. But it’s also built on the assumption that the US president is not unhinged. Kissinger was so close to Nixon that the military accepted his judgement. The only people in the current White House who might be called upon to exercise the same kind of judgement are members of Trump’s family and John Kelly. But Trump doesn’t drink, so he would need to be incapacitated first.