“This should calm some nerves,” wrote Peter Daou, the former Hillary Clinton staffer and founder of Verrit. Daou was referring to a CNN report in which Gen. John Hyten, head of the US Strategic Command, warned that he would resist any illegal orders from President Donald Trump — or any president — to launch nuclear weapons. "He'll tell me what to do, and if it's illegal, guess what's going to happen?” said Hyten on Saturday at the Halifax International Security Forum. “I'm gonna say, 'Mr. President, that's illegal.’”
The comments follow a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday on the president’s authority to order the use of nuclear weapons, the first time a congressional committee has investigated the question in more than four decades.
At that hearing, retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, Hyten’s predecessor under President Barack Obama, told the committee that Trump can’t simply launch nuclear weapons at whomever he wants, whenever he wants. “The legal principles of military necessity, distinction, and proportionality also apply to nuclear plans, operations, and decisions,” he said. “Legal advisers are deeply involved with commanders at all steps.”
It is comforting to know that Trump cannot order a nuclear holocaust as easily as he can launch a tweetstorm. But behind these hearings and headlines lurks the unnerving way in which many have come to see the military as the last, best bulwark against our erratic commander-in-chief.
This is, in part, because the military appears to be one of the few institutions that Trump respects. He is contemptuous toward career politicians, toward executive agencies, toward judges, toward the civil service. But he admires military men, and at least occasionally listens to them.
John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, is a retired four-star general, as is Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is an active duty three-star general in the Army. And their supposed steadying presence has been a source of comfort to Trump’s many skeptics.
Mattis and Kelly "help separate our country from chaos,” says Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker. They “see the world similarly and privately express a sense of duty to help steer Trump,” reports Axios’s Mike Allen. The AP reported that they formed an early pact “that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House."
In conversations around Washington, I have often heard a confidence that if Trump tries to do something truly dangerous on the international stage, like strike North Korea after being offended by a comment from Kim Jong Un, the military will quietly beat back the order, drowning the president’s intention in bureaucracy and complexity and rallying allies on Capitol Hill to intercede.
Read more: Trump’s recklessness is magnifying the military’s political power — and independence - Vox