Just like his predecessors, whether he is at the White House, in a motorcade, aboard Air Force One or on a trip overseas, he will never be more than an arm’s reach away from the aide and his satchel.
“You have to be ready anytime, for any moment,” said Pete Metzger, who often carried the nuclear launch suitcase during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “The time is so short between alert and execution.”
Trump, like other presidents before him, could have less than 15 minutes in the case of an emergency to get briefed by military aides and make a decision on whether to order a nuclear strike.
“Donald Trump will have the unfettered ability to wage nuclear war,” said Joseph Cirincione at The Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear organization. “He can launch one weapon or a thousand weapons, and no one can stop him, outside of mutiny by the armed forces.”
Contrary to popular mythology, the “nuclear football” does not contain a button but instead the equipment and the decision-making papers that Trump would use to authenticate his orders and launch a strike.
There is a black book listing a menu of strike options; a 3-by-5-inch card with authentication codes for the president to confirm his identity; a list of secure bunkers where the president can be sheltered; and instructions for using the Emergency Broadcast System.
On Inauguration Day, the aide with the satchel will arrive at the swearing-in accompanying President Barack Obama, and after the ceremony, will accompany Trump.
Trusting Trump with nuclear codes
Not everyone is comfortable with the prospect.
“How can you trust him with the nuclear codes?” Obama said at a rally in Durham, North Carolina, earlier this month. “You can’t do it.”
And Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer who supported Hillary Clinton, says his concerns about Trump persist.
A president’s order could only be stopped by mutiny, according to Kingston Reif at the Arms Control Association, and only if more than one person were to disobey the president’s orders.
“The president has supreme authority to decide whether to use America’s nuclear weapons, period,” he said. “Full stop.”
Trump’s transition team did not respond to an inquiry to clarify his nuclear policy. But his rhetoric on the campaign trail may have fed the concerns of his national security critics.
“I will be the last to use it. I will not be a happy trigger, like some people might be,” he said.
Trump’s stance on Iran worries proliferation experts
A few days later, he walked that back — but only partially.
“I would rather have them not armed,” he said at a rally in Wisconsin. “But I’m not going to continue to lose this tremendous amount of money. And frankly, the case could be made that, let them protect themselves against North Korea.”
Cirincione said that Trump is undermining a decades-long American stance against nuclear proliferation. And by making America’s defense of allies like South Korea and Japan contingent on their paying more to the US, he said, Trump may prompt nervous allies to wonder whether they need to obtain nuclear weapons systems of their own.
“The president of the United States must be absolutely clear that we do not want them to do that,” he said. “That is not the path to security.”
Metzger said that, in his experience at least, the president takes the responsibility of the nuclear codes very seriously.
“The president is well enough rehearsed in these things to know, if I come in and look them in the eye, he or she knows there’s something going on. I’m not coming in to order breakfast,” he said.
“The result of a decision the president would make is so grotesquely horrible — it would change the face of the earth, it would change humanity, it would change mankind.”