News & Politics

Top Nuclear General Says He Would Refuse 'Illegal' Order From Trump to Launch Nukes

Gen. John E. Hyten, the head of Strategic Command (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told a security conference in Nova Scotia that he would refuse to obey an “illegal” order from Donald Trump to launch nuclear weapons.

Asked if he has given much thought to how he would handle a nuclear strike order from President Trump that he thinks is unlawful, Hyten, who oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal, answered, “I think some people think we’re stupid. We’re not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?”

“I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do,” Hyten said. “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 options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”

He explained that if he were to execute an unlawful order, “You will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life.”

The key word here is “illegal.” In fact, no U.S. military officer is bound to obey an order he believes to be “illegal,” so why this is being made into a big deal is something of a mystery.

The Constitution, tradition, and common sense give the commander in chief wide latitude and broad authority to decide on the disposition of our nuclear forces. Even if his military advisors and the entire cabinet are against him, the president could still legally order our nuclear forces to attack, so the concept of an “illegal” order to launch is almost unfathomable.

I suppose it is barely conceivable that a general would refuse an order to target a nation that wasn’t threatening the U.S. on the grounds that it was against international law, but that’s in the realm of fantasy.

But the general’s comments will add fuel to the argument by some Democrats that Congress should have an equal say in any order to launch nuclear weapons. Senator Ben Cardin wrote an op-ed for the Capitol Gazette explaining that the current authority that lies solely in the hands of the president is an outmoded policy and needs to be changed:

“Today, however, we face a different question than the one we faced during the Cold War,” Cardin wrote. “The most likely attack against our country is not a massive surprise nuclear attack by Russia or China, but an escalating conflict with a smaller nuclear adversary like North Korea. In a more limited or targeted attack circumstance, where the danger is still high but we would not face the same “use them or lose them” pressure we faced during the Cold War, it is possible and would be wise for the president to consult Congress before the profound decision to use nuclear weapons.”

“The bottom line is that authority for use of nuclear weapons should reflect the current realities of nuclear power,” he continued. “The current structures, however, leave the U.S. open to potentially catastrophic decision-making.”

Anyone who thinks we don’t face a nuclear threat from Russia or China should go back to sleep. Both nations are flexing their military muscles and it is more than possible that we could become embroiled in armed conflict with Russia in Eastern Europe or China in the South China Sea. Any war using conventional arms with either power could escalate into a nuclear exchange. That Cardin is oblivious to that threat disqualifies him from serving in the Senate.

This is not only a bad idea, it’s a bad partisan idea. Cardin would never pull this crap with a Democrat as president. And while I share some of the widespread concerns about the mental and emotional stability of Donald Trump, altering the chain of command on nuclear launch authority isn’t the answer.