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An atomic bomb test in Nevada in 1957. Photo: © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to members on Friday that she's spoken to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley about preventing President Trump from accessing the nuclear codes.

Why it matters: Pelosi's message surfaced an uncomfortable reality about America's nuclear control structure: if the president wants to use nukes, there is no clear way to stop him.

What's happening: In her message, Pelosi mentioned discussing "available precautions" around Trump and the nuclear codes.Reality check: Such precautions do not exist.

Be smart: For all the destructive power of nuclear weapons, a different factor dictates America's command and control structure: their speed.

  • Absolute presidential control of the nuclear arsenal was solidified in part out of the realization that the speed of nuclear war would not allow for lengthy debates.
  • If a U.S. president were alerted that ICBMs were inbound from Russia, there might be as few as 10 minutes to decide whether to retaliate before the missiles reached their destination.
  • That time pressure doesn't exist in the case of an American first use of nuclear weapons. But as an unprecedented Senate hearing in 2017 made clear, while protocol calls for the president to consult with several officers and officials before launching nuclear weapons, "the president has no obligation to take the officers' advice," Kaplan wrote.

Flashback: President Obama reportedly weighed ruling out first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, but never went through with it.

  • Sen. Edward Markey drafted a bill in 2019 blocking the president from launching a first strike without congressional consent, but it never went to a vote.

The bottom line: The power to use the most devastating weapons ever devised rests in the president's hands.

Go deeper

23 hours ago - World

Iran lays out "road map" for nuclear talks with Biden

Khamenei earlier this month. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Iran has been accumulating bargaining chips and laying out its strategy for engagement with Joe Biden, who arrives in office promising to return the U.S. to the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran returns to compliance.

Why it matters: Recent statements from Iran's leaders indicate that they're willing to strike such a deal. But the sides differ over who will have to make the first move, and when.

30 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Stalemate over filibuster freezes Congress

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell's inability to quickly strike a deal on a power-sharing agreement in the new 50-50 Congress is slowing down everything from the confirmation of President Biden's nominees to Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

Why it matters: Whatever final stance Schumer takes on the stalemate, which largely comes down to Democrats wanting to use the legislative filibuster as leverage over Republicans, will be a signal of the level of hardball we should expect Democrats to play with Republicans in the new Senate.

Dave Lawler, author of World
57 mins ago - World

Biden opts for five-year extension of New START nuclear treaty with Russia

Putin at a military parade. Photo: Valya Egorshin/NurPhoto via Getty

President Biden will seek a five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms control pact with Russia before it expires on Feb. 5, senior officials told the Washington Post.

Why it matters: The 2010 treaty is the last remaining constraint on the arsenals of the world's two nuclear superpowers, limiting the number of deployed nuclear warheads and the bombers, missiles and submarines which can deliver them.