It is a responsibility that has passed to every president since John F Kennedy – the custody of the so called “nuclear football” – the hardened brief case that is handed over on the day of the inauguration of new presidents by their predecessor.
The question being asked, given Trump’s almost unprecedented decision not to meet Joe Biden or attend his swearing in, is what will happen to the nuclear football?
The reality is that while the briefcase, carried by a military aide, and containing nuclear attack plans, access to command and control systems and the mechanism for authorising the nuclear codes has become a shorthand for the president’s singular responsibility to order a nuclear attack, the mechanisms are a little more complex.
The “football” itself – also known as the “emergency satchel” or simply “the button” is a metal Zero Halliburton briefcase covered in leather to look rather like an old fashioned doctor’s bag, weighing around 20kg.
The bag is said to contain a copy – in some form – of the Black Book, the options for nuclear retaliation, the “biscuit”, an active electronic card identifying the president as the person able to authorise the “watch signal” triggering the use of nuclear weapons and the ability to communicate with command and control hubs.
Finally, perhaps most important, the briefcase contains an emergency broadcast system to allow the president to communicate any orders.
The football itself, however, is very much a backup, designed for use when the president is away from the fixed and protected command and control centres such as the White House situation room, where he would expect to be briefed by key officials in most circumstances ahead of authorising a nuclear retaliation as the US, while not having an all-encompassing no first strike nuclear policy, does have a “negative security assurance” on nuclear weapons use with 180 countries, although excluding the likes of Russia, China and North Korea.
In 2013 Dick Cheney, Gerald Ford’s former chief of staff, described what usually happens on inauguration day when the responsibility for that attack moves to a new president.
“The passing of the football occurs at high noon. No one says a word but I knew what to look for.
“So you got the ceremony going down front, [but] behind one of the big pillars there, these two guys are standing in their uniforms. And at the right moment, [the outgoing military aide] reaches over and hands it to the newly designated military aide and he takes it from that moment on.”
While the physical transfer has become part of the ritual of the transfer of power, albeit an unseen one among the pomp and circumstance, described by one of Bill Clinton’s aides as a “sacred duty”, the real transfer of responsibilities is actually somewhat more prosaic.
During the briefing about the nuclear codes and the briefcase on the morning of the inauguration, the key thing that happens is that “the biscuit” or rather “a biscuit” is reprogrammed and given to the new president or his designated military aide activating at noon on the day of the swearing, meaning that the new president can identify himself.
According to reports, the Pentagon has long had a plan for the transfer of responsibility in the event of Trump skipping the transfer of power.
Given the importance of the football, with its antenna protruding from it, it seems unlikely that there would be no redundancy in so important a system, a fact underlined by reports that there are actually three physical briefcases, not a solitary presidential satchel, one that can be assigned to the vice president and one to the “designated survivor” – usually a member of the cabinet designated by the president to ensure continuity if both the president and vice president are incapacitated.
“We war-game this stuff, and we practise it ad nauseam for years and years,” Buzz Patterson, who carried the football for Clinton, told Business Insider, adding that the transfer needed to be instantaneous.
“There are systems in place to make sure that happens instantaneously. There won’t be any kind of question about who has it, who is in charge at that point in time.
“We don’t take this stuff lightly. There won’t be any kind of hiccup. It’ll just go down without anybody even noticing, which is what is supposed to happen.”
At midday, as Joe Biden is sworn in, Trump’s “nuclear biscuit” will become inactive. The most frightening of his powers will be gone.