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Opinion Milley’s revelation about Trump leaves us with five questions

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a news briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 18. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

We already knew the disgraced former president was suffering from the delusion that he won the 2020 election. We knew he tried to twist arms to overthrow the election. And we knew he refused for hours to call off the insurrectionists whom he inspired to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6. What we did not know is how irresponsible so many other Republicans were and continue to be in tolerating and enabling him.

The Post reports: “Twice in the final months of the Trump administration . . . Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, that the United States would not strike, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and national political reporter Robert Costa.”

Woodward and Costa also reveal that Milley took special care to instruct the chain of command not to carry out an order for a nuclear strike in the waning days of the Trump administration. They also relay a candid conversation in which Milley and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed that the commander in chief was unstable. All of this leaves us with five questions:

First, what guarantees must be put in place to prevent an unstable president from setting off a nuclear war? Milley is right that, as chairman of the joint chiefs, he is to be included in a decision to authorize a nuclear strike. Beyond that, Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, explains, “No one can countermand [a nuclear strike order from the president]. But the commander of STRATCOM could say ‘this is an illegal order and I am not bound to follow it.’” Nichols adds, “[The president] can then start relieving people until he gets to someone who will follow the order.” (This view was affirmed in a critical Senate hearing in 2017.) Plainly, an order to authorize a nuclear strike without provocation would violate the laws of war, which among other things require proportionality.

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The better inquiry is whether the president should have unilateral power to launch a nuclear strike. While he is commander in chief, certainly a nuclear strike can be considered a declaration or an act of war, which only Congress can grant. Congress could pass a law requiring a congressional vote, which would at least slow down a rogue president and reinforce commanders’ inclination to resist such an order.

Second, why did Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet not invoke the 25th Amendment to relieve a president who was clearly unfit for office? The short answer is that they are cowards who could not bring themselves to uphold their oaths of office even to prevent potential nuclear obliteration. The more generous explanation is that they thought they could contain him. On this one, we plainly need some statutory authorization and guidance on the 25th Amendment to lay out step-by-step instructions for the vice president and the Cabinet. Given that a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans might actually go along with clarifying legislation that would, among other things, provide for a panel of medical doctors.

Third, how could former White House officials — including former chief of staff John F. Kelly, former national security adviser John Bolton, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former director of national intelligence Daniel Coats (among others) — not inform the country (before the election even) of the president’s unfitness for office? Again, the short answer is that they are cowards, or at least thought they would not be believed. It might not do any good, but Cabinet-level national security officials should have to affirm in their confirmation hearings that they will report to Congress if they suspect the president is not emotionally and mentally capable of performing his duties.

Fourth, how could Republican officeholders then and to this day pay homage to, take direction from and support for reelection someone who was clearly unstable? Well, we know they are cowards from their refusal to impeach him, efforts to block the Jan. 6 commission and continued reiteration of the “big lie" that the election was stolen. Their reticence to defend the country against an unconstitutional coup remains the most grotesque moral and political failure in memory.

Finally, why did the media consistently underplay President Donald Trump’s incoherence, and why do they still resist confronting Republicans about their blind loyalty to a crackpot? I do not have a good answer for that one. Perhaps they need to rethink their role. They are not custodians of the myth of moral equivalence between the parties. They are truth-tellers whose prime obligation is to democracy. They might start taking that obligation seriously, beginning with asking every Republican if the 2020 election was stolen, if the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were justified and how they could continue to heed the direction of someone whose lunacy has not abated since he lost the election.