In most matters related to the governance and defense of the United States, the president is constrained by competing branches of government and by an intricate web of laws and customs. Only in one crucial area does the president resemble, in the words of the former missile officer and scholar Bruce Blair, an absolute monarch—his control of nuclear weapons. Richard Nixon, who was president when Major Hering asked his question, was reported to have told members of Congress at a White House dinner party, “I could leave this room and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.” This was an alarming but accurate statement.
When contemplating their ballots, Americans should ask which candidate in a presidential contest is better equipped to guide the United States through a national-security crisis without triggering a nuclear exchange, and which candidate is better equipped to interpret—within five or seven minutes—the ambiguous, complicated, and contradictory signals that could suggest an imminent nuclear attack. These are certainly not questions that large numbers of voters asked themselves in 2016, when a transparently unqualified candidate for president won the support of 63 million Americans.
At the time, Donald Trump had not yet served in public office, so concerns about his ability to protect the United States from harm were hypothetical, though grounded in his long and terrible record as a human being. As The Atlantic stated in its October 2016 endorsement of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, Trump “traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself … He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”
What we have learned since we published that editorial is that we understated our case. Donald Trump is the worst president this country has seen since Andrew Johnson, or perhaps James Buchanan, or perhaps ever. Trump has brought our country low; he has divided our people; he has pitted race against race; he has corrupted our democracy; he has shown contempt for American ideals; he has made cruelty a sacrament; he has provided comfort to propagators of hate; he has abandoned America’s allies; he has aligned himself with dictators; he has encouraged terrorism and mob violence; he has undermined the agencies and departments of government; he has despoiled the environment; he has opposed free speech; he has lied frenetically and evangelized for conspiracism; he has stolen children from their parents; he has made himself an advocate of a hostile foreign power; and he has failed to protect America from a ravaging virus. Trump is not responsible for all of the 220,000 COVID-19-related deaths in America. But through his avarice and ignorance and negligence and titanic incompetence, he has allowed tens of thousands of Americans to suffer and die, many alone, all needlessly. With each passing day, his presidency reaps more death.