The House Speaker's public revelation of the call may have been intended to pressure members of Trump’s cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Friday called the country’s top military officer to discuss what safeguards are in place to prevent President Donald Trump from launching a nuclear attack in his waning days in office.
Pelosi announced the call in a “dear colleague” letter released Friday, and a spokesman for Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley confirmed it.
"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 said in the letter.
"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 said.
Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for Milley, said that he “answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority.”
Milley is not in the chain of command and has no official role in the process to launch a nuclear weapon beyond an advisory one. The president has the sole authority to order a launch, and the United States has consistently refused to sign on to a “no first use” doctrine, which states that a given country will use nuclear weapons only if another country uses them first. At all times, he is accompanied by an aide carrying “the football,” a leather case containing the nuclear options available to the present.
But although the president is the sole decision-maker, senior officials who are in the chain of command could refuse to execute a strike order if they felt it were illegal — if Trump ordered a nuclear strike on Iran with no provocation, for example. Trump’s former head of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, currently the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said at the Halifax Security Forum in 2017 that he wouldn’t accept an illegal order from Trump to launch a nuclear attack.
“He’ll tell me what to do and if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen?” Hyten said. “I’m gonna say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’”Some nuclear experts say this isn’t safeguard enough against presidential mistakes or, say, mental illness. Former Defense Secretary William Perry, among others, has argued for removing sole launch authority from the U.S. president.
Pelosi’s public revelation of the call with Milley may have been intended to pressure Pence and other members of Trump’s cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a president who is incapacitated or unable to perform his duties. It would be a high political hurdle to clear: Not only must Pence and a majority of the executive Cabinet declare in writing that Trump is unfit for office, two-thirds of the House and Senate must vote in favor of removing Trump if he contests the declaration.
Congressional Democrats, along with a handful of Republicans, are seeking Trump’s removal from office after he incited an angry mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in an attack that left five people dead. A Capitol Police officer was killed by rioters, and one rioter was shot by police while trying to forcibly enter the House chamber while members of Congress and the press huddled terrified on the floor. Three other rioters died from “separate medical emergencies.”
Pelosi in her letter said that she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had reached out to Vice President Mike Pence to urge him to initiate 25th Amendment proceedings to remove the president and 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."
But, Pelosi said, "If the President does not leave office imminently and willingly, the Congress will proceed with our action,” an apparent reference to impeachment proceedings that some members have already spearheaded.