“The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy,” she added.
Milley’s spokesperson, Col. Dave Butler, said Pelosi initiated the call with the chairman. “He answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority.”
Numerous Democratic lawmakers have pushed for legislation that would limit the president’s authority to launch a nuclear strike — including by requiring additional officials to sign off on a launch and making the “no first use of nuclear weapons” an official U.S. policy.
Some have also warned of Trump’s politicization of the military and expressed concerns ahead of the November election that the commander in chief could use the military, either domestically or internationally, in an improper manner with the goal of influencing the election or staying in power.
The process to launch a nuclear strike does not proceed through the typical military decision-making chain of command that requires input and approval from many officials. Instead, the order is meant to be conveyed as quickly as possible so military officers can execute a decision that only the president can make.
But it is also not as easy as it sounds for a president to just launch a strike out of the blue.
Gen. John Hyten, now the nation’s No. 2 military officer, told an audience at a military forum in 2017 that leaders would not obey an illegal order and can advise the president before launching.
“And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options, of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”
“There is no mythical red button. That mythical button doesn’t exist. That is a Hollywood thing,” added a senior military official who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It is a very complicated process. We have legal advisers in the room on both sides — on the military side and on the civilian side. The laws of armed conflict, the law of war, play a big role in this — ethical proportionality and all that.”
One person with direct knowledge of nuclear operations said Pelosi is sending the wrong message by raising the issue in public.
“It makes America look weak and weakness is provocative,” said a Defense Department official who advises nuclear commanders. “I don’t think what Pelosi is doing is helpful.”
But the official also agreed that her message signals a lack of understanding about how the nuclear arsenal is managed and under what conditions it would or could be used in the absence of a direct threat to the United States from abroad.
“The way the nuclear arsenal is employed, it is not that easy for a crazy president to go and launch nukes,” the official said. “That’s kind of a silly thing to say.”
A senior military official stressed on Friday that troops have been taught to recognize and disobey illegal orders, particularly those at U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees America’s nuclear arsenal. While theoretically Trump could fire any officer who refused to obey an illegal order, he would be hard-pressed to find another who would implement it, the person said.
“It is important that our oath is to the Constitution, not to a person,” the person said. “I’m not saying that is easy, but I’m still confident that we would be able to do it.”
Retired Gen. Colin Powell, a former Joint Chiefs chairman, cautioned on Friday against bringing the nuclear codes into the discussion on Trump and his final days, insisting that the concerns about a madman left to his own devices with the launch codes is simply not the way it works.
“We’ve seen him do some crazy things, but let’s not start dragging out things like nuclear codes,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show before Pelosi made her announcement. “I was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I can tell you for sure that if something like this ever happened and someone suddenly said, ‘We want to use a nuclear weapon,’ they would never get near it.”
Nonetheless, such worries are not new. “They said the same things about Ronald Reagan if you go back and look in the New York Times during the 1980 campaign,” said the official with knowledge of nuclear operations. “They were saying almost the same exact things.”
The infrastructure to launch an attack is carried in a heavy black briefcase, called the “football,” that a military aide brings everywhere the president goes. Inside is communications equipment to allow the president to talk to the National Military Command Center, a sealed packet with a piece of paper inside called a “biscuit” that contains an authentication code to certify that the order is coming from the president, and a basic pamphlet of pre-set military responses. The simplicity of the set up is designed for the president to make a decision in a matter of minutes.
The launch processes are intended to move so quickly that there is no second-guessing or canceling an attack once the decision is sent.
Pelosi’s letter comes as congressional Democrats, and some Republicans, are seeking Trump’s removal from office — either through action by Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet or by the congressional impeachment process — after the commander in chief incited his supporters to breach the U.S. Capitol.
The riot led to lawmakers being evacuated, delayed the official certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over Trump and resulted in five deaths, including a Capitol Police officer.
Trump’s removal by the 25th Amendment is a long shot, with two Cabinet secretaries tendering their resignations following the violence at the Capitol. Democrats are instead readying to act to impeach Trump next week.
In her letter, Pelosi said she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had reached out to Pence with no response, adding that they “still hope to hear from him as soon as possible with a positive answer as to whether he and the Cabinet will honor their oath to the Constitution.”
“If the President does not leave office imminently and willingly, the Congress will proceed with our action,” she added.
Lara Seligman and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.