Although Donald Trump will become the first incumbent president since 1869 not to attend the inauguration of his successor, this does not call into question the process of handing over the “nuclear suitcase” — one of the important moments of the transition of power to the new president.
CNN quotes Stephen Schwartz, an expert at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, as saying.
Traditionally, the suitcase containing the equipment that a U.S. president potentially must use to confirm an order for a nuclear strike is always with him and is usually passed from the military aide who always accompanies the president to another aide — when the next president is sworn in.
This time, however, the procedure will take place differently, as Trump plans to leave Washington for his native Florida before Biden’s inauguration ceremony.
According to Schwartz, there are at least three or four such ‘nuclear suitcases’ (known as ‘nuclear footballs’): one is always with the president, another with the vice president, and at least one reserved for the ‘surviving successor’ for emergencies. In addition to the ‘nuclear suitcase, the president has a special plastic card (known as a ‘biscuit’) with codes that are used to identify the president.
“On Jan. 20, additional ‘suitcases’ will be somewhere out of town with those responsible for them, and (in Washington) only Vice President Mike Pence’s suitcase will remain — unless the White House military department has already prepared an additional copy for Biden,” Schwartz told CNN in a commentary.
Under the law, Trump will retain control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal until the last minute of his term — 11:59:59 p.m. of inauguration day. Therefore, it is most likely that President Trump’s “nuclear suitcase” will travel with him to Florida in the hands of a designated aide.
“If an aide accompanies Trump to Florida, he or she will leave Trump at noon with the suitcase,” Schwartz revealed. At that time, the codes “stitched” into President Trump’s plastic key card would be automatically deactivated, while Biden’s codes, by contrast, would be activated.
“The easiest way to explain how this happens is that there will be an instant transition at noon on Wednesday (Jan. 20). “Biden’s ‘biscuit’ will not yet be valid at 11:59 a.m., and Trump’s ‘biscuit’ will no longer be valid at 12:01 a.m.” — commented nuclear policy expert Weiping Narang, a professor at MIT.
Military experts point out that while the president is the only official who can decide on a nuclear strike, he cannot strike on his own, and the prescribed protocol contains safeguards against illegal orders. For them to be considered legitimate, the strike must have a legitimate purpose, a clear military objective, and the force used must be proportional.