In the summer of 1974, as Richard Nixon’s presidency was unraveling—and Nixon’s mental stability along with it—Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger committed, in the words of historian Gil Troy, “the most patriotic act of treason in American history.” The brilliant young secretary (only a year in the job) reportedly told the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff not to follow any presidential orders to the military without checking with Schlesinger first. According to a Washington Post account shortly after Nixon’s resignation, Schlesinger and the Joint Chiefs “kept a close watch to make certain that no orders were given to military units outside the normal chain of command.” The Post attributed the move to concern that Nixon might try to use the military to stage some sort of coup to avert impeachment. But in its 2014 obituary of Schlesinger, the New York Times reported an even more chilling concern: that in his disintegrating mental state, Nixon might order the use of nuclear weapons.
If Schlesinger did indeed give this order—and over the remaining 40 years of his life, he artfully and consistently avoided denying it—it was unconstitutional. As Franklin C. Miller, who served for three decades in U.S. national security roles, told the New York Times in 2016, “The president and only the president has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.” But can the President alone order a first use of nuclear weapons, and for that matter, a preventive war of choice? Since Donald Trump became a serious candidate for President, this legal, constitutional and moral conundrum and the memory of Schlesinger’s principled act of defiance have heavily shaped discussion of how he would handle the awesome powers of the presidency over national security.
Donald Trump’s presidency enters its second year with the palpable sense of a gathering storm. By most accounts, the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller is pushing forward aggressively on multiple fronts. It may now be getting close to the President’s family and his most inner circle, after already indicting his former campaign chairman and obtaining plea agreements with his national security advisor and a lower-level foreign policy aide. Reportedly, Mueller is seeking to interview Trump directly. In the courts of public opinion and elementary common sense (and possibly down the line, in legal proceedings as well), the President appears to be his own worst enemy. Who that is innocent of political collusion with the Russians repeats 16 times in an impromptu 30-minute interview, “there was no collusion”? The words have become such a relentless Trump mantra, day after day, week after week, like a nervous tick, that they inevitably summon Shakespeare’s trenchant insight from Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much.”
The persistent and by now gratuitous denials come from a President who is unable or unwilling to distinguish truth from fiction, who dishes out falsehoods as a daily ritual, whose gluttony and compulsive behavior suggest (in the words of a psychiatrist I respect) “a complete lack of impulse control,” and who, by the shocking account of Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury, as well as many others, doesn’t read memos, can hardly be briefed, is overwhelmed by an office he was not expecting to win, and is losing what grasp he had of reason and reality.
In short, we may be approaching in the second year of the 45th president a situation as volatile and dangerous as the final days of the 37th president. For all his legendary faults—his greed for power, his paranoia, his bitterness and vindictiveness—Nixon was at least a deeply experienced and knowledgeable president, both in domestic and foreign affairs, and he understood the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons. Trump is completely lacking in governing or military experience of any kind. Most frighteningly, he may not actually understand how devastating a nuclear war could be, or even a conventional war on the Korean peninsula. And he may have learned the wrong lesson from his (to my view well justified) April 2017 launch of 59 cruise missiles to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons. That brought no serious military retaliation against the United States. An attack on North Korea would involve very different stakes on both sides.
As 2018 unfolds, the domestic and international dimensions of Trump’s crisis-ridden presidency are beginning to intersect in wildly unpredictable and potentially disastrous ways. There are signs of preparations for a U.S. military attack on North Korea by mid-year, and a new report by a leading Russian expert on North Korea indicates that the Pyongyang regime “is convinced that the U.S. is preparing to strike.” This would likely be not a full-scale military assault to terminate the North Korea’s tyrannical regime but rather a punishing “bloody nose” strike, either to send a message about American resolve to halt further testing and development of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons program or to actually destroy as much of its existing infrastructure as possible.
While every American would like to be rid of the nuclear threat from the world’s last totalitarian regime, the risks of a military strike are enormous. They involve not only the possibility of massive North Korean retaliation against South Korea (and against American military installations in South Korea and Japan, where a total of more than 50,000 American troops are based), but also a military confrontation with China, which is ramping up its own military preparations in response to the growing signs of the U.S. military planning for an assault. Moreover, the attack would likely be seen by most of the world as an unprovoked act of “preventive war,” and one that would be launched before diplomatic options had clearly been exhausted (as they have hardly yet been adequately pursued). This would leave the U.S. diplomatically isolated and viewed by most of the world as responsible for death and destruction on a massive level. A diplomatic breakthrough to freeze and contain North Korea’s program before it can hit the U.S. may still be possible, and Trump is now all of a sudden signaling openness to diplomacy. But it is hard to see this as anything more than the president’s notorious unpredictability. As the Wall Street Journal observed in reporting his new signal, “Mr. Trump has vacillated between seeming open to—and even eager for—diplomacy with North Korea, and dismissing the need or value for it.”
Then there is the looming domestic political crisis. What signal was the President sending when he told the New York Times in December, “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department”? And what are we to make of the gathering drumbeat of demands from conservative media figures, Trump loyalists, and Republican congressmen for Mueller’s firing—a seemingly orchestrated campaign that has congressional Democrats and even some Republicans deeply worried?
In the coming months, the two gathering crises may well intersect. Given his past behavior and personal volatility, a Trump order to fire Mueller might be a shocking offense against the justice process, but it would hardly be surprising, considering his previous efforts to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation. These include his asking FBI director James Comey for a pledge of personal loyalty and then firing him when he did not receive it, and his attempt (in March of last year) to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Then there was the widely reported incident aboard Air Force One last July 8, when the President reportedly personally dictated a statement his son was to issue insisting that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer the year before was “primarily” to discuss “a program about the adoption of Russian children,” and not the ongoing presidential campaign. Like the repeated condemnations of the special counsel’s investigations, the demands that it come to a close, and the endless recitation of the mantra, “there was no collusion,” these three episodes reek of the fear of a man who has something to hide, and who is laboring obsessively to hide it.
We do not yet have proof either of what happened with Russia, or of how Donald Trump will conduct himself as this second year of his presidency unfolds. It has been a characteristic feature of his instability that his personal and political tirades alternate with tantalizing glimpses of a more practical, reasonable, and approachable man, ready to make serious compromises for a workable deal—whether on immigration, or infrastructure, or NAFTA, or who knows, even North Korea. But it is also characteristic of individuals with personality disorders that the illness inevitably seeps through—as in his latest racist outburst about black immigrants from “sh*thole countries.” And the malady grows worse as the pressure intensifies. There is good reason to believe that, in pursuit of justice and simply discovering the truth, Robert Mueller is going to bring the pressure. The North Koreans are bringing the pressure. And pressure comes with the unforgiving burdens of the presidency. These are high among the reasons to worry that 2018 will be a year of living very dangerously for the United States, and for its democracy.