Obama Urged to Take U.S. Nukes Off High Alert Before Trump Takes Office


A leading arms control organization is calling for President Obama to take U.S. nuclear missiles off high alert before President-elect Donald Trump assumes office. The Ploughshares Fund has circulated a public petition urging President Obama to place restraints on the incoming president’s ability to launch a nuclear attack. Last week, President-elect Trump alarmed nuclear weapons experts when he raised the prospect of a new global arms race on Twitter. We speak to Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, which has circulated the petition urging President Obama to take U.S. nuclear missiles off high alert.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Trump’s tweet read, quote, "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes," end-quote. The United States and Russia account for 93 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Following Trump’s tweet, his spokesman, Sean Spicer, tried to clarify Trump’s position in an interview with CNN. He was speaking to Alisyn Camerota.

SEAN SPICER: He is going to do what it takes to protect this country. And if another country or countries want to threaten our safety or sovereignty, he’s going to do what it takes. ALISYN CAMEROTA: Sure, but he’s not waiting until another country threatens us. He’s making these proclamations before it.

SEAN SPICER: He’s making it very clear—no, right, but he’s making it very clear that other countries and other companies—you’ve seen with Carrier and other—he’s going to make it clear that he will be an active president that will get things done.

ALISYN CAMEROTA: Meaning he will use nuclear weapons if need be.

SEAN SPICER: No, no. He will—he will not take anything off the table.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer, speaking last week on CNN with Alisyn Camerota. Well, to talk more about Trump’s comments, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak with Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which has circulated the petition urging President Obama to take U.S. nuclear missiles off high alert. Joe, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean that President Obama, before he leaves office, should take nuclear weapons off high alert? What does this mean? And can Trump reverse this immediately on the first day?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, Donald Trump is a policy chameleon. With the exception of a few issues, you don’t really know what he thinks. So when he tweets out that he wants to expand U.S. nuclear capability, when he tells a network correspondent that "Let it be an arms race," you have to worry that he means what he says. You have to worry that a man of this temperament, of this character, might be more willing to use nuclear weapons than any previous president. So there is something that President Obama can do about this to buy us some time. He can end the Cold War practice of keeping our nuclear missiles on high alert, ready to launch in a few minutes’ notice. This is something that he pledged to do when he was campaigning, said he would do it when he took office, never did it. He’s got 22 days to try and correct that mistake. Yes, President Trump could then come in and reverse it, but that is much harder to do. It would be very difficult for President Trump to put nuclear missiles on high alert. Why are you doing that? What’s the crisis? What’s the justification? This is one of those policies that has survived because people haven’t looked at it, people haven’t questioned it. Why does anyone have the ability to launch nuclear weapons so quickly? In 22 days, Donald Trump will be able to launch nuclear missiles as quickly as he now tweets. Four minutes after he gives the order, those missiles will fly. No one can stop him. No one can reverse those launches.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to go back to comments Trump made earlier this year on the risk of nuclear proliferation. During a Republican presidential town hall in Milwaukee, Trump talked about the possibility of other countries acquiring nuclear weapons. He was questioned by moderator, CNN’s Anderson Cooper. DONALD TRUMP: At some point, we have to say, "You know what? We’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea. We’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself." We have to—

ANDERSON COOPER: Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?

DONALD TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, absolutely. They’re making—

ANDERSON COOPER: You would be fine with them having nuclear weapons?

DONALD TRUMP: No, not nuclear weapons—

ANDERSON COOPER: OK. DONALD TRUMP: —but they have to protect themselves, or they have to pay us. Here’s the thing: With Japan, they have to pay us, or we have to let them protect themselves. ANDERSON COOPER: So, but if you say to Japan, "Yes, it’s fine you get nuclear weapons," South Korea, "You, as well," and Saudi Arabia says, "We want them, too"— DONALD TRUMP: It’s going to—can I be honest with you? It’s going to happen anyway. It’s going to happen anyway. It’s only a question of time. NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was President-elect Trump speaking earlier this year. So, Joe Cirincione, can you respond to that, not only the question of high alert, taking the U.S. nuclear missiles off high alert, but also Trump’s position on other countries acquiring nuclear weapons?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Yeah. He’s wrong on so many levels here. Let’s take it apart. First of all, it is not inevitable. There is nothing inevitable about nuclear proliferation. For the last 40 years, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, have had a concerted policy to reduce nuclear weapons in the world. And guess what. It has worked. There are far fewer nuclear weapons in the world now than at the height of the Cold War. We’ve cut the global arsenals by 80 percent. More countries have given up nuclear weapons and nuclear programs over the last 30 years than have tried to acquire them. We’re down to one rogue state, so-called rogue state, North Korea. That’s it. There’s nobody else. So there’s nothing inevitable about this. Number two, the idea that he would encourage other countries to get nuclear weapons flies in the face of 70 years of U.S. policy. No U.S. president has ever encouraged any country to get a nuclear weapon—not the United Kingdom, not France, not Israel—our allies. We didn’t want them to get nuclear weapons. Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia—that is insane. That is starting an arms race. Can you start an arms race with a tweet? Can you start an arms race with this unclear, rambling kind of discourse he has? Yes, you can. President Trump will be able to do this with the stroke of a pen, with a side comment, with another tweet. That’s what worries so many people about his getting control of the most capable, the most destructive death machine on the planet—the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, the U.S. and Russia, between them, have 93 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. So, if he does accelerate the arms race, what are the prospects for other nuclear weapon states—China, India, Pakistan—who, in relative terms, have virtually none?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Yes. When you do bar graphs, you know, you see the U.S. column go way high, Russia’s column go way high. The other countries, with 100 or so nuclear weapons, barely register. But when the big guys start talking about building new weapons—and the U.S. is already on a path to spend $1 trillion on new nuclear weapons over the next 25 years—and then expand those arsenals, they’re basically telling the other countries, "Start your engines." What is China going to do? They have about 200 nuclear weapons now. Won’t they feel pressure to expand? And then India and Pakistan? You can see the nuclear chain reaction this kind of thing sets off. That’s why reversing this three-decades-long U.S. policy of reducing nuclear weapons is so dangerous. You shouldn’t be making nuclear policy on Twitter. It is just not a responsible way for any president, for any individual, to behave.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to comments President Obama made when he was the Democratic presidential nominee in September 2008. The Arms Control Association asked him about his nuclear policy. Among other issues, Obama addressed specifically the risks involved with the U.S. being able to so swiftly launch a nuclear attack. He responded, quote, "Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation—something that President Bush promised to do when he campaigned for president back in 2000, but did not do once in office." That is what the candidate Obama said. Did President Obama do this? And what do you think should happen right now?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: He did not, but he still has time. He’s been making significant policy changes up until this morning, either statements on, for example, Israel or executive actions to cut—put Arctic drilling sites off-limits for new exploration. He can do this. If he’s protecting part of the environment, take a step to protect the entire planet. That’s why we put this petition up on Change.org to—as one small step. People can go there, sign it, build public pressure. We’re privately trying to communicate to the administration to take this step. And this is because this relic of the Cold War is so totally unnecessary. There is no reason for the president of the United States to be able to push or to give an order—there isn’t actually a button—to be able to give an order, and, four minutes later, the nuclear weapons will fly. This was done when we were afraid of a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack from the Soviet Union, hundreds of warheads streaking over the poles—an extremely unlikely scenario. And so there’s no reason to have this policy now. Even if that were to happen, we have our submarines, we have bombers, that are safe, that could retaliate. So you don’t need this for any reason. And having this kind of policy greatly exacerbates the risk of an accident. My friend and colleague Eric Schlosser has a brilliant essay in The New Yorker this week about all the accidents we had—have had, how so often we came very, very close to accidentally launching our missiles because of a computer glitch, a misunderstanding, a misreading. There’s no reason to put the world in this kind of peril. 

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