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How subordinates can check an impulsive president

David Ignatius on

The next morning, while being briefed on carrier movement, Nixon asked Kissinger if "anything else" happened. Kissinger said, "No," and Nixon answered "Good." Kissinger wrote later that he "never heard another word about bombing Damascus."

A final example of sand in the presidential gears comes from Jeffrey H. Smith, a former CIA general counsel who during the Nixon era was a young Army lawyer. Smith recalled in a recent post on Just Security that in August 1974, a few days before Nixon's resignation, he was shown a message from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to subordinate commanders, advising that if they received any White House "execute orders" to use force, they should confirm them first with the chairman or the secretary of defense.

Thomas explains in his book: "Worried that the president might do something desperate, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger passed the word that all commands to the troops from the White House must pass through him." Schlesinger later claimed that he just wanted to reinforce the chain of command. This episode has also been explored by Garrett Graff in Politico.

What could our imaginary Mattis do, if he tried similar methods of caution, but the president still wanted to launch what Mattis and his commanders viewed as an unwise attack?

Well, there's a remedy for that in our Constitution. The 25th Amendment provides that the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet officers can inform Congress that the president is unable "to discharge the powers and duties" of his office. The vice president will take over, unless two-thirds of the House and Senate back the president.

But mind you, this is all hypothetical. As the Nixon stories show, even the most willful presidents usually end up listening to Pentagon advice.

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David Ignatius' email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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