Like anyone else, a president can have major mental health impairments that can interfere with his judgment. Unlike anyone else, that “judgment” may include a decision to launch nuclear weapons.
Further, virtually anyone else with major decision-making responsibility thought to be mentally impaired is subject to checks-and-balances if supervisors or co-workers or a board of directors questions that mental health. Not so with a president.
Many have opined that this particular president is not sane enough to be entrusted with the unfettered right to launch nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, two Democrats, Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ed Lieu (D-Calif.) proposed legislation to seriously curtail that right. It would constrain President Trump from launching pre-emptive nuclear war, while still allowing him to respond.
However well-intentioned, this is a partisan piece of legislation, aimed squarely at a Republican president, that stands no chance of passage. And on a more practical level, where does one draw the line between “pre-emption” and “response?” How far into launch must North Korea be before President Trump could respond without Congressional approval?
The Presidential Nuclear Sanity Act
A much more practical and non-partisan law could accomplish the same thing. It could be called the Presidential Nuclear Sanity Act. It would apply to any president, not just this one. It would require the Surgeon General to appoint three psychiatrists to sign off on a president’s sanity. If a majority (or all) don’t think he is sane, then the “football” passes down the line of succession and the process is repeated.
An even lighter version of the Nuclear Sanity Act would not vest the actual decision-making authority in the Surgeon General’s psychiatrists. Rather, the psychiatrists’ findings would be disclosed, just like the results of presidential physical exams are disclosed. The actual decision would be left to Congress.
Inevitably, this would become known as the “Three Shrinks You’re Out” law. That’s a good thing, because it will get more attention if people can understand it in four words.
There is no partisanship because the Surgeon General himself is a presidential appointee. In this particular case, there should be no controversy because the current Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, is highly regarded by most who know him or know of him. (During the period between inauguration and the examinations, the president would retain the nuclear launch right, same as now.)
It would be very difficult for a legislator to oppose this legislation. A legislator who thinks President Trump is sane supports it, thinking it would be easy for him to pass muster — and by doing so, silence his critics. A legislator who thinks he is insane supports it for the more obvious reason of keeping him away from the nuclear button.
By contrast, a legislator opposing it sends the message that he or she thinks the president is insane, but that shouldn’t bother anyone. That’s a tough message to explain to one’s constituents.
Perhaps Senator Markey and Rep. Lieu could be convinced to reframe their legislation along the lines of the Presidential Nuclear Sanity Act, and create a system of checks-and-balances for the only presidential privilege — arguably the most important privilege — that is not subject to any right now.