WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought and received assurance Friday from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that President Donald Trump would not be able to order a nuclear strike in a fit of rage.
Pelosi’s extraordinary request indicates concerns at the highest level about Trump’s state of mind. In a letter sent to collegues, Pelosi wrote that she contacted the nation’s most senior military officer about Trump’s mental fitness and concern about him unilaterally launching a nuclear strike.
“This morning, I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike,” Pelosi wrote.
Pelosi told House Democrats in a conference call that she received assurances that safeguards are in place to prevent Trump from illegally ordering a nuclear strike, according to a person on the call who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Army Col. Dave Butler, the spokesman for Army Gen. Milley, acknowledged Pelosi’s call in a brief statement.
“He answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority,” Butler said.
Pelosi’s concern about Trump’s fitness has echoes of the last days of Nixon administration. Before President Richard Nixon resigned for the Watergate scandal, there was worry that he would launch a nuclear strike, recalled Chuck Hagel who was a congressional staffer at the time. Hagel would go on to become a Republican senator and Defense secretary in the Obama administration.
The same prospect exists today with Trump, Hagel said in an interview.
Nixon’s Defense secretary, James Schlesinger, sent word to the Pentagon that a nuclear or any military strike ordered by Nixon had to be run past Schlesinger, Hagel said.
“That was precipitated by a very unstable president,” Hagel said. “I remember that episode very, very well. Scary stuff.”
If Trump orders a military strike, senior military officials like Milley will have to weigh whether the order is lawful, Hagel said.
“President Trump’s state of mind is not very good right now,” Hagel said. “He feels everybody has abandoned him.”
Hagel, along with the nine other living former Defense secretaries, signed a letter published Monday by the Washington Post that reminded Pentagon officials not to become entangled in politics.
The retired Pentagon chiefs have grown alarmed about Trump’s erratic behavior, said Leon Panetta, who also served as CIA Director under President Barack Obama and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
“The fact that former secretaries of Defense signed that letter was based on, frankly, our fear of what could happen on Wednesday,” Panetta said of the attack on the Capitol by rioters encouraged by Trump.
Panetta called on Republican leaders to prevail on Trump to avoid actions that could further damage the country.
“The last four years, it’s basically been a game of survival,” he said.