Typically, the football would be handed off to another military aide standing on or nearby the inauguration viewing stand as Biden takes his oath of office.
But on Wednesday, that exchange will happen a bit differently as Trump is currently expected to depart Washington, DC, for Florida before Biden’s inauguration ceremony.
The nuclear football will likely travel with him, experts say, meaning there will be at least two briefcases in different locations, presenting a unique challenge of ensuring the transfer of authority goes smoothly.
While that process may play out slightly differently than it has in years past, there are safeguards in place to ensure a seamless transition of nuclear control from one president to the next, regardless of circumstance, according to Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Handing off the ‘football’
Contrary to popular belief, the nuclear football does not contain a button or codes that can automatically launch a nuclear weapon but instead has the equipment and authorities that Trump would use to order a strike.
“There are at least three to four identical ‘footballs’: one follows the president, one follows the vice president, and one traditionally is set aside for the designated survivor at events like inaugurations and State of the Union addresses,” according to Schwartz..
“On January 20, [the extra footballs] will be out of town somewhere with their designees, leaving just [Vice President Mike] Pence’s briefcase unless the White House Military Office has prepared (or already has on hand) another backup for Biden,” he told CNN.
Additionally, the President is required to carry a plastic card known as the “biscuit” with them at all times. The biscuit contains alphanumeric codes that are used to positively identify the president, who maintains the sole, legal authority to authorize a nuclear launch.
The reason is explicitly laid out in the Constitution, which gives Trump complete authority over the US nuclear arsenal up to the very second Biden is sworn in at noon on Wednesday.
“Under the 20th Amendment — and absent any invocation of the 25th Amendment that would make Mike Pence the acting president — Donald Trump is president through 11:59:59 am on January 20. Up to that point in time, he has the sole, legal authority to authorize the use of any or all of the US nuclear arsenal,” Schwartz said.
“If an aide with the football accompanies Trump on Air Force One to Florida, that aide will remove himself or herself from Trump’s presence at noon and return to Washington, DC, with the briefcase,” Schwartz added.
Transfer of authority
After that point, Trump will no longer have such authority and the nuclear codes he carries will automatically be deactivated, he added. Meanwhile, Biden will automatically inherit the power to launch a nuclear strike at exactly the same time.
That means if Trump attempted to order a strike at 12:01 pm on Wednesday, the order would be considered illegal and military commanders tasked with carrying out the launch are obligated to refuse.
The transition of that authority is ensured by the fact that the codes Trump would use to authenticate his…
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