Jan 3, 2018

Some White House officials fear accidental war

Photo: AUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump's boast last night that he has a "bigger & more powerful" Nuclear Button (caps, Trump's) than North Korea has some administration insiders worried that we could blunder into war.

What they're saying: "Every war in history was an accident," said one administration insider. "You just don't know what's going to send him over the edge."

  • The "him" was Trump, but could also refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who started the "nuclear button" exchange with a New Year's Day speech on Monday in which he said: "The U.S. should know that the button for nuclear weapons is on my table" (desk).
  • The N.Y. Times' succinct homepage headline: "Trump Taunts Kim."

But, but, but: Trump insiders caution that the media tends to over-interpret and over-cover statements that Trump has made just to stir the pot, and with little prior thought.

  • Their view is basically: Sometimes, a tweet is just a tweet.

Why it matters: The danger here is that Kim is also an unpredictable actor, and not one fully understood by U.S. intelligence.

  • As one outside adviser to the West Wing told me: "This is the most important issue on the president's desk. We are in a hair-trigger environment. And this is potentially a shooting war with nuclear risk."
  • The adviser added: "What intel analysis or foreign policy advice leads to employing this as a tactic?"

Be smart: Some West Wing insiders remain convinced that the risk of war is higher than most outsiders realize.

Reality check: No button — just a football and a biscuit ... "[T]he president doesn't actually have a physical button," by AP's Matthew Pennington notes:

  • "The process for launching a nuclear strike is secret and complex and involves the use of a nuclear 'football,' which is carried by a rotating group of military officers everywhere the president goes and is equipped with communication tools and a book with prepared war plans."
  • "If the president were to order a strike, he would identify himself to military officials at the Pentagon with codes unique to him. Those codes are recorded on a card known as the 'biscuit' that is carried by the president at all times. He would then transmit the launch order to the Pentagon and Strategic Command" (USSTRATCOM, located at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb.)

Same for Kim ... Per the N.Y. Times: "[O]fficials ... dismissed Mr. Kim's comment that he now has a 'nuclear button' on his desk as a rhetorical flourish"

  • "Currently, Mr. Kim cannot launch a weapon in seconds, as his declaration seemed intended to suggest. All of the tests he has conducted of intercontinental ballistic missiles have involved liquid-fuel weapons that take hours, sometimes days, to prepare for a launching."

Go deeper: "Here's how Trump launches a nuclear weapon," by Axios' Shannon Vavra.

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 11 p.m. ET: 721,817 — Total deaths: 33,968 — Total recoveries: 151,204.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 11 p.m. ET: 142,328 — Total deaths: 2,489 — Total recoveries: 4,767.
  3. Federal government latest: President Trump says his administration will extend its "15 Days to Slow the Spread" guidelines until April 30.
  4. Public health updates: Fauci says 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die from virus.
  5. State updates: Louisiana governor says state is on track to exceed ventilator capacity by end of this week — Cuomo says Trump's mandatory quarantine comments "panicked" some people into fleeing New York
  6. World updates: Italy on Sunday reports 756 new deaths, bringing its total 10,779. Spain reports almost 840 dead, another new daily record that bring its total to over 6,500.
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

U.S. coronavirus updates: Infections number tops 140,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The novel coronavirus has now infected over 142,000 people in the U.S. — more than any other country in the world, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: COVID-19 had killed over 2,400 people in the U.S. by Sunday night. That's far fewer than in Italy, where over 10,000 people have died — accounting for a third of the global death toll. The number of people who've recovered from the virus in the U.S. exceeded 2,600 Sunday evening.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 2 hours ago - Health

World coronavirus updates: Cases surge past 720,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

There are now more than 720,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus around the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins. The virus has now killed more than 33,000 people — with Italy alone reporting over 10,000 deaths.

The big picture: Governments around the world have stepped up public health and economic measures to stop the spread of the virus and soften the financial impact. In the U.S., now the site of the largest outbreak in the world, President Trump said Sunday that his administration will extend its "15 Days to Slow the Spread" guidelines until April 30.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 4 hours ago - Health