Here's a sobering thought: despite the layers of civilian and military bureaucracy, if a sitting US president wants to order a nuclear missile strike, there is no one who can legally prevent that order from being carried through. A further edge to your sobriety: if that sitting US president is suffering from mental health issues, they can still order the joint chiefs to launch that nuclear strike. This is according to the legendary journalist and author, Bob Woodward, who’s co-written Peril, the final part of his trilogy of books on the former US president Donald Trump, with acclaimed reporter Robert Costa. He cites a transcript of a phone call between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, in which Pelosi is seeking assurances that President Trump won’t launch a nuclear attack:
"Milley says, 'Oh no, our procedures are sound.’ And then he realises very, very clearly that the procedures could be circumvented by a president who’s in mental decline, which Milley concluded was the case. And all of those scenes we have in the book of Trump just raging in the Oval Office, screaming at people, irrational, not stable... Of course, under the US constitution, the President is the Commander in Chief and can do what he wants with the military. There’s no vote, no one else has a say."
It is, as Ryan says, a terrifying thought. But the picture that Peril paints of the Trump White House is relentlessly terrifying, from Milley having to call his counterpart in China to reassure him that the US was not planning to attack them, to the Chinese and Iranians going on military alert following the insurrection of January 6th because they considered it a very real possibility that the US would collapse. This would be why the book is called Peril. And these are not stories we’ve seen on CNN – Woodward and Costa have obviously got access to records no other journalists have seen.
"And then the peril continues that Trump, who really tried to overturn the election and continues with that theme of the stolen election, he’s so popular among Republicans that he may get the nomination for 2024 and some polling shows that he could win."
The once and future peril that is Trump. The book also covers the election of Joe Biden as president, Costa telling Ryan that Biden decided to make his third run for president to try to ensure Trump didn’t get re-elected:
"What you see in Biden’s winding path to the presidency in 2020 is a different Joe Biden... In 1988 and 2008, Joe Biden has failed bids for the presidency and both of those bids, based on our reporting, were very much driven, sure by policy issues and an agenda, but also driven by ambition. But by 2018, after watching what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia a year prior, Biden’s back on the campaign trail and instead of going into political winter, he really sees Trump as an existential threat to American democracy, an un-American figure. And so, instead of being driven by ambition, for the third time around, our reporting shows that he is actually driven more by a mission, a mission that Trump has to be stopped."
You can hear the full, absolutely fascinating, not to mention scary, conversation between Ryan, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, by going here.
Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa is published by Simon & Schuster.