Amid growing concerns about what U.S. President Donald Trump might do during his last days in office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed Friday that she has asked the top Pentagon general what measures are in place to prevent the president from launching a nuclear attack.
The possibility, while seemingly remote, may be a consideration in a drive by Pelosi and some other national leaders to remove Trump from office even before his term in office ends on Jan. 20.
“This morning, I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to her Democratic Party colleagues in the House of Representatives.
“The situation of this unhinged president could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy,” she said.
Asked to confirm the call had taken place, a spokesperson for Milley told VOA, “He answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear code authority.”
The spokesperson did not elaborate on what was said during the call.
Later Friday, however, NBC reported that Pelosi had told her fellow Democrats that she had been assured there are safeguards in place that would prevent Trump from unilaterally attempting to order a nuclear strike.
The president has sole authority to order the launch of a nuclear weapon and does not require the approval of Congress or his military advisers. But if a military commander were to determine, on advice of his lawyers, that such an order was illegal, then the order could be refused.
Past and present Pentagon leaders have also said they would not obey an illegal order from the president.
Pelosi and her colleagues are also anxious to see the president held accountable for his role in inciting the mob that overran the U.S. Capitol earlier this week, delaying the process of certifying the election of President-elect Joe Biden and leading to the deaths of five people, including a Capitol Police officer.
Democratic congressional leaders have also called on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, which offers an alternative and perhaps quicker way to remove the president from office. Pence has not responded but has reportedly told colleagues he does not favor such action.
Passed in the 1960s, the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows for the temporary transfer of power from the president to the vice president if the president is incapacitated, with the approval of a majority of the Cabinet. But analysts say that option could be difficult to exercise with just days left in Trump's presidency.
“It's also very difficult in a situation in which the president is not in a coma or not otherwise physically incapacitated that he can't function or operate because under the 25th Amendment, once it is invoked the president can notify Congress that he is able to discharge the powers of the office and take that power back,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Pelosi warned that if Pence does not take action, congressional Democrats would pursue a vote on articles of impeachment.
“The president’s dangerous and seditious acts necessitate his immediate removal from office,” Schumer and Pelosi said Thursday.
When asked Friday about the House’s timeline for impeachment, Pelosi said, "Our conversation continues. We have several options so far."
An overwhelming number of Democratic lawmakers – and some Republicans – have expressed support for removing Trump from power or censuring his actions.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has called for Trump to resign, making her the first Republican senator to endorse a presidential resignation.
“I want him to resign,” she told The Anchorage Daily News. “I want him out. He has caused enough damage."
“He hasn't been focused on what is going on with COVID,” Murkowski said. “He's either been golfing, or he's been inside the Oval Office fuming and throwing every single person who has been loyal and faithful to him under the bus, starting with the vice president. ... He needs to get out.”
But House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy indicated he does not support impeachment.
“Impeaching the president with just 12 days left in his term will only divide our country more,” he said.
Those comments were echoed by White House spokesperson Judd Deere, who said Friday, “This is a time for healing and unity as one nation. A politically motivated impeachment against a president with 12 days remaining in his term will only serve to further divide our great country.”
Biden said Trump wasn’t “fit” for office, but he declined to endorse Democratic calls that he be impeached for a second time. Biden said the situation would be different if Trump were not leaving office in less than two weeks.
“If we were six months out, we should be doing everything to get him out of office. Impeaching him again, trying to evoke the 25th Amendment, whatever it took,” Biden said. “But I am focused now on us taking control as president and vice president on the 20th and to get our agenda moving as quickly as we can.”
Five people died as a result of the riot at the Capitol on Wednesday. The president’s supporters overwhelmed Capitol Police in an effort to stop a joint session of Congress counting the electoral votes for President-elect Biden’s win.
Earlier in the day, Trump held a rally on the National Mall and encouraged his supporters to protest the results. The massive security breach by the pro-Trump rioters marked the first time the U.S. Capitol had been invaded since the British entered it during the War of 1812.
If lawmakers move forward with Trump’s impeachment, it would be the second time. Trump was impeached on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in December 2019 but was acquitted in a trial in the U.S. Senate in February 2020. No American president has ever faced two impeachment votes.
“There are two reasons to pursue impeachment,” said Paul Berman, a professor of law at the George Washington University School of Law. “One is simply to make it clear that a sitting president inciting an insurrection against the United States government is perhaps the worst thing that a president could ever possibly do. And that statement needs to be made. Second, and more pragmatically, if he were impeached, and convicted, that would prevent him from running for office in the future.”
While it is unlikely U.S. lawmakers have time to return to work to enact the complicated procedures for an impeachment before the end of Trump’s term, analysts say a Senate trial could be held after the president leaves office.
“There's nothing that I can see in the Constitution that would prevent an impeachment trial and conviction from happening in the days after he leaves office,” Berman said. “We need to create accountability that a president cannot do what he did and also because we want to prevent him from holding office ever again.”