Inside the White House complex, an instruction manual is hidden in a secure location for use only in national emergencies. Few people know where it is, and even fewer people are allowed to access it. Informally dubbed the “Doomsday Book,” the manual contains the president’s break-glass options for keeping the country running in situations ranging from global nuclear war to an armed foreign invasion of the United States.
The options are known by an anodyne name—PEADs—or “presidential emergency action documents.” Recently declassified records suggest that the PEADs allow the president to invoke extraordinary powers. The records hint at draft authorizations to enable the White House to unilaterally detain “dangerous persons,” censor the news media, flip an internet “kill switch,” take over social media, and suspend Americans from traveling. These might be the type of actions a president would take if the nation’s capital was destroyed, enemy forces were hunting down U.S. leaders, or the survival of U.S. democracy was in doubt.
Mark Harvey was once the keeper of the book. He served on the NSC during the Trump administration and referred to the manual as “the Mad Libs for the most extreme measures of government.” While Harvey wouldn’t confirm or deny the PEAD contents, his job was “to advise whether to pull out that book and go through these extraordinary decisions,” which he said could be implemented by the nation’s chief executive “with the stroke of a pen.” He was always on hair-trigger alert.
When Donald Trump was in office, senior aides like Harvey were concerned about protecting access to the PEAD documents. Inexperienced MAGA types roamed the White House halls daily, and NSC experts knew that, in the wrong hands, the special powers could be dangerous. Would someone suggest that Trump try to use the documents for non-emergency situations? Would they try to manufacture a crisis so that he could invoke presidential emergency actions?