Facts About 'Nuclear Football' Briefcase of the U.S President: History, Inside and Red Button
Photo: Businessinsider

DONALD Trump's 'nuclear football' briefcase, containing the launch codes for America’s nuclear arsenal, remains at the president's side as he battles coronavirus in hospital, according to US Media.

The 45lb briefcase was handed to Trump when he took office and it never leaves the president's side. Inside is a black book of strike options for him to choose from, once he has authenticated his identity using a plastic card nicknamed ‘the biscuit’.

Even as he is in hospital, Trump still has had sole authority to order the launch of the United States' 1,365 nuclear weapons and bring about the deaths of millions of people, The Sun reported.

What is the Nuclear Football?

Officially known as the “president’s emergency satchel,” per Smithsonian Magazine, the President’s Nuclear Football isn’t actually a football at all. Wrapped in black leather instead of brown pigskin, and framed in rigid aluminum, this satchel contains all the equipment necessary to allow him, “to communicate with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon,” the organization constantly monitoring nuclear threats, and to order a nuclear attack, according to Reader’s Digest.

Then why is it called a football?

Possibly proving that football—not baseball— is America’s true pastime, this nuclear response satchel is called the Nuclear Football because of its portability and because it is carried by hand along with, we imagine, with the fiercest stiff-arm imaginable should someone try to tackle this particular ball carrier. The nickname Nuclear Football also comes from the word “dropkick,” per the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a code name given to a secret nuclear-war plan.

There’s no red nuclear button

You probably think that inside the commander in chief’s top-secret Nuclear Football, there’s a red button allowing him to launch a nuclear attack. There is not. However, there is a menu of nuclear war plans. Much like a restaurant menu, the President could decide to order the elimination of a single place posing a threat to the United States or supersize the level of attack if necessary in the event of a national security risk. Red button or not, having that much power makes a president age faster than a civilian. Check out these before-and-after photos of how U.S. Presidents have aged in office.

When is this football in play?

Facts About 'Nuclear Football' Briefcase of the U.S President: History, Inside and Red Button
Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/Epa/Shutterstock

The Nuclear Football is only in play when the president is away from the White House, per Atomic Heritage. When is rooted in D.C., the Situation Room is utilized for national security threats. But on the road, the Nuclear Football is always within the president’s reach for an emergency handoff, from inside elevators to hotel rooms and everywhere else he should travel.

What’s inside the Nuclear Football?

According to Bill Gulley, former director of the White House Military Office, in his 1980 book Breaking Cover: “There are four things in the Football. A 75-page black book of retaliatory nuclear-strike options printed in black and red ink, another black book listing classified site locations to shelter and secure the president, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System, and a three-by-five inch card with authentication codes.” Additionally, an antenna may be seen poking out of the world’s most top-secret football, suggesting there is likely communications equipment more elaborate than a burner phone tucked inside with all the books, folders, and index card.

The president doesn’t carry it

While the Nuclear Football is always within his reach while away from the White House, the President of the United States does not actually carry the top-secret black leather satchel. According to Business Insider, the Nuclear Football is “hand-carried by one of five military aides.”

But the president does carry “the biscuit”

There’s a credit-card-sized piece of plastic nicknamed “the biscuit” that the president carries at all times—well that’s the plan anyway. This small top-secret document contains the codes needed to order the launch of nuclear weapons and it can be a five-alarm fire, figuratively speaking, if the biscuit goes missing.

Alarmingly, the biscuit has, quite famously, gone missing a few times throughout the Nuclear Football’s half-decade lifespan according to Timeline.com.

Facts About 'Nuclear Football' Briefcase of the U.S President: History, Inside and Red Button
Photo: Time

Jimmy Carter is said to have inadvertently lost his version of the biscuit his when a suit was sent to the dry cleaners.

After the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, the 40th president’s biscuit was dumped in a plastic bag at the hospital along with the clothes he was wearing at the time of the shooting.

And, according to General Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, “The Nuclear Football codes were actually missing for months,” during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

When did the Nuclear Football enter the field of play?

The earliest known photograph of one of the president’s military aides carrying the now-famous top secret black briefcase was taken on May 10, 1963, at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, per Smithsonian Magazine (a retired Nuclear Football, emptied of its top-secret contents, is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History). The magazine goes on to note that while the full origin story of the Nuclear Football is still highly classified, the history of the black leather bag with black books and an index card with authentication codes that allows the commander-in-chief to order the launching of a nuclear attack, can be traced back to John F. Kennedy and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The Vice President has a football too

According to CNN, the president isn’t the only American with a Nuclear Football within an arm’s length at any given moment. Should the president be incapacitated, the Vice President of the United States will be trailed by a military aide carrying a secondary black leather satchel containing the same books, folder, information, and top-secret communication technology to discuss the emergency with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and order a nuclear attack against an enemy.

Notable incidents

Since the creation of the football, there have been a number of incidents which theoretically could have impeded the president’s ability to launch a nuclear strike.

In the summer of 1974—the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, when he was depressed and drinking heavily—the president reportedly announced at a meeting with congressional leaders, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” A shocked Senator Alan Cranston warned Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.” In response, Schlesinger allegedly gave top military officials an unprecedented standing order: should the president authorize a nuclear attack, they were to check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before continuing. Historians, however, continue to debate the accuracy of this episode, Atomicheritage reported.

Facts About 'Nuclear Football' Briefcase of the U.S President: History, Inside and Red Button
Photo: Greg Mathieson/Shutterstock

There have also been a series of incidents involving “the biscuit” which contains the nuclear codes. President Jimmy Carter, who served in the White House from 1977 to 1981, once left his codes in the pocket of a suit jacket that was sent to the dry cleaners. After the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, his biscuit was tossed into a trash can at the George Washington University hospital when medical staff stripped off his clothes. The FBI recovered it soon after, and returned the codes to the White House. Perhaps most infamously of all, President Bill Clinton reportedly lost his biscuit for several months. “The codes were actually missing for months,” said General Hugh Shelton. “That’s a big deal—a gargantuan deal.”

In 1999, Clinton left a NATO meeting in such a hurry that the football was actually left behind. The military aide responsible carried the nuclear briefcase a half mile back to the White House without incident. During President Donald Trump’s visit to China in 2017, Chinese officials tried to stop the military aide carrying the football from entering the auditorium in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, although the situation was quickly resolved.

Pelosi Wants to Keep Nukes Out of Donald Trump's Hands

After President Donald Trump roused supporters to raid the U.S. Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the Pentagon’s highest military officer about the processes involved in ordering a nuclear strike, Politico said.

Pelosi wrote a letter to fellow lawmakers informing them that she spoke with General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about keeping “an unstable President from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.”

Facts About 'Nuclear Football' Briefcase of the U.S President: History, Inside and Red Button

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is pictured at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Samuel corum/Getty images

The phone call, which was confirmed by Milley’s office, comes as Pelosi moves to impeach Trump for a second time. “The situation of this unhinged President could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy,” she wrote.

The issue is particularly concerning as Congressional members wonder about Trump’s temperament and whether the nation can survive his remaining days in office without further damage to national security. Five people were killed in the wake of the takeover of the Capitol by pro-Trump protesters, including Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year old protestor from San Diego, and Brian Sicknick, a 42-year-old U.S. Capitol Police officer from New Jersey.

What happens to the ‘nuclear football’ if Trump skips Biden’s inauguration?

President-elect Joe Biden is due to assume the United States presidency and in the process, the power to activate the country’s nuclear arsenal, as have all presidents since the Cold War and the Cuban Missile crisis, said the Independent.co.uk.

But the current president, Donald Trump, has also suggested he won’t participate.

Those two tools, called the “nuclear football” (a briefcase) and the “nuclear biscuit” (the activation codes), are carried around with the US president at all times, and transferred to whoever assumes office on inauguration day, usually around noon.

That’s, at least, one briefcase for the president, one for the vice president, and one for the designated survivor, whose football always stays behind at the White House, said Mr Schwartz.

The Pentagon could, in that case, provide Mr Biden with a nuclear briefcase on the day he becomes president, and that process should occur the moment he is sworn-in, according to those with knowledge on the process.

His designated military aide will then start carrying the football, while Mr Trump’s command over his own would cease – wherever he and his military aide may be.

At the same time, the nuclear activation codes become validated for the new president and vice president, who are typically briefed hours before the inauguration on the biscuit, said Mr Schwartz.

He told CACP: “If Trump blows off the inauguration, then presumably he will have an aide with the ‘football’ with him until noon and an aide with another ‘football’ will be at the Capitol ready to start following Biden around after he is sworn in.”

"Hopefully President Trump will be there and it will be just a handoff, which is what it's been for decades," said Mr Former Air Force Lt. Col. Buzz Patterson, who carried Bill Clinton’s football, who said to Insider that "it's not that big of a deal" because the military will make sure the handover takes place, no matter the situation.

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