By Tom Z. Collina

President John Kennedy took powerful pain medications. President Richard Nixon was a heavy drinker. President Ronald Reagan had dementia. And now President Donald Trump has the coronavirus. These conditions can significantly impair one’s ability to think clearly. And yet, as president, each had—or, in Trump’s case, still has–the unilateral authority to launch US nuclear weapons within minutes.

President Trump is followed 24/7 by a military aide that carries the “football,” the briefcase that holds all he would need to order the immediate launch of up to 1,000 nuclear weapons, more than enough megatonnage to blow the world back into the stone age. He does not need the approval of Congress or the secretary of defense. Shockingly, there are no checks and balances on this ultimate executive power.

President Trump took the nuclear football with him to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he received treatment for COVID-19. According to Trump’s doctor, the president’s blood oxygen levels had dipped. And this, according to independent health experts, can impair decision-making ability. He is taking dexamethasone, which can cause mood swings and “frank psychotic manifestations.” Yet as far as we know, at no point did the president transfer his powers to the vice president, as allowed under the 25th Amendment.

To state the obvious, we should not entrust nuclear launch authority to someone who is not fully lucid. (Reagan transferred authority temporarily before planned surgery, as did President George W. Bush before a medical procedure that required his sedation.) A nuclear crisis can happen at any time, including at the worst possible time. If such a crisis takes place when a president’s thinking is compromised for any reason, the results could be catastrophic.

For example, imagine that the president is alerted to an incoming nuclear missile attack. He would have just minutes to decide what to do before the attack, if real, would land. Even in the best of circumstances there would be tremendous pressure to launch land-based ballistic missiles (which are highly vulnerable) immediately. He would need all of his wits about him to understand that he should not launch these weapons. Why? Because any alert of a nuclear attack is likely to be a false alarm, and once launched our missiles cannot be recalled. If the president orders an attack in response to a false alarm, he would have started nuclear war by mistake.

If the president or his advisors have reason to believe that Trump’s thinking may be compromised, nuclear launch authority should be transferred to the vice president, Mike Pence. If Pence also gets COVID, the football could then be passed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Pro Tempore of the Senate Chuck Grassley, and the secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, in that order.

But kicking the football down the line does not solve the problem—and in fact shows why the system is broken. Does anyone really believe that the president pro tem of the Senate or the Treasury Secretary has spent much time preparing for nuclear war? And even if they had prepared, the central dilemma remains: All humans are imperfect, and we should not trust the fate of the world to any one person.

The whole concept of giving the president unilateral nuclear authority is built on the false assumption that Russia might launch a surprise first strike. In fact, Russia has never seriously considered a first strike against the United States for a simple reason: It would be national suicide. Both s