Don’t say that we weren’t warned.
In a September 2015 speech before the National Press Club in Washington, the Louisiana governor and Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal said:
“Donald Trump is dangerous. But not in the way you think. Many people think he’s dangerous. They say, ‘Well, you wouldn’t want somebody like that with such a hot head with his fingers on the nuclear codes.’ And yeah, that’s certainly true. That’s not the real danger. The real danger is that ironically Donald Trump could destroy America’s chance to be great again.”
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During the second Republican presidential debate that same month, the CNN anchor Jake Tapper referred to Jindal’s concern about Trump and the nuclear codes, and asked Carly Fiorina, “Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?”
Fiorina hemmed and hawed, deflected and redirected, doing anything not to say what everyone knew – that Trump with the nuclear codes was a horrible idea. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, also cowered when the question was put to him. But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was forthright and forceful, saying:
“I think really there’s a sophomoric quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried. I’m very concerned about him, having him in charge of the nuclear weapons, because I think his response, his visceral response to attack people on their appearance – short, tall, fat, ugly – my goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that? Would we not all be worried to have someone like that in charge of the nuclear arsenal?”
During a December 2015 Republican debate, Dana Bash, the CNN anchor, referred to a statement Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, made on the campaign trail about his actual beliefs about Trump and nuclear weapons, saying, “Sen. Cruz, you have not been willing to attack Mr. Trump in public.”
She continued, “But you did question his judgment in having control of America’s nuclear arsenal during a private meeting with supporters.”
Hillary Clinton warned during the campaign, in a foreign policy speech in June 2016, “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes, because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.”
In July 2016, Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter for his best-selling memoir “The Art of the Deal,” revealed to The New Yorker, “I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.”
He continued, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes, there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”
That same month, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia warned at the Democratic National Convention about “giving the nuclear codes to a man who praises Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein.”
In August 2016, a Republican representative, Richard Hanna of New York, endorsed Hillary Clinton because, as he put it: “I think Trump is a national embarrassment. Is he really the guy you want to have the nuclear codes?”
By the time Clinton had her first debate against Trump, she had sharpened this nuclear attack line, but something about it still felt dull: “A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes.”
Something about all these warnings, while true, felt of another time, like they were happening during the Cold War, rather than tailored for an election about the culture wars. Still, a Fox News poll conducted a month before the election found that voters overwhelmingly trusted Clinton to do a better job making decisions about using nuclear weapons.
But enough Americans looked past these warnings, just as they pushed past so many others, to hand Trump the election. After all, the nuclear question was theoretical and academic, right? No, it wasn’t.
In fact, after the election, concern about Trump controlling our nuclear arsenal only congealed.
The worry is so real that in January, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., introduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act, which is designed “to prohibit the conduct of a first-use nuclear strike absent a declaration of war by Congress.”
In May, The Washington Times quoted Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., as saying, “We do not trust him with our nuclear weapons arsenal” and “We do not want him to use nuclear weapons first in the North Korean standoff – not just there in Korea, but all across the planet.”
The article also quotes Markey as saying of Trump: “As his comments become more erratic and inconsistent on the use of nuclear weapons, we think it’s imperative for the United States Congress to reclaim its constitutional authority to have the power to determine whether or not these nuclear weapons are used first against any country.”
Trump continues his war of words and measuring of egos with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. While I still find the threat of a nuclear strike remote, it grows less and less remote with every passing day and every insult.
Kim is irrational and unhinged, but so is Trump.
No matter whether I agreed with President Barack Obama’s policies or not, I never once worried that he might ignite a nuclear war. That assurance has now been removed. As my colleague Nicholas Kristof, who recently visited North Korea, said of the possibility of a war between our country and theirs: “War is preventable, but I’m not sure it will be prevented.”
This is what Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., meant when he talked to The New York Times last week. The Times reported that Corker charged that Trump was “treating his office like ‘a reality show,’ with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation ‘on the path to World War III.’”
Plenty of people tried to warn us about this moment, but not enough Americans took heed. To them, this was sky-is-falling hyperbole. The use of nuclear weapons was a thing of history and Hollywood.
But it is ever so clear that the threat is urgent and real and that the only thing standing between a nuclear strike and us is a set of short fingers that constantly type out Twitter insults.
If all this makes you uneasy, good. It should. Also, welcome to the club.