Sometime in the next few weeks, Donald Trump will sit down for one of the most consequential briefings of his transition, when military commanders will train him on the procedures for launching a nuclear attack or counterattack and go over potential targets.
If history is any indication, the briefings will mark the moment when Trump feels the momentous weight of the presidency on his shoulders.
Whether these nuclear briefings will sharpen Trump’s focus on nuclear issues is unclear. During the campaign, his off-the-cuff statements indicated limited concern about nuclear proliferation and only a dim awareness of the cascading dangers that experts say the spread of nuclear weapons might bring.
Trump has mused aloud about South Korea and Japan obtaining nuclear weapons, and he indicated the U.S. might limit its commitments to defend other regions from nuclear attack.
“For the issue of nuclear proliferation, this election could be an enormous game changer,” said Jeffrey Knopf, an expert on nuclear weapons at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.
By all accounts, the nuclear briefings a president-elect receives before inauguration are both complex in detailing procedures for a nuclear launch and awe-inspiring in explaining the physical consequences of selecting a target, letting loose with a nuclear barrage and girding for the fallout.
“These are the aspects that reportedly left President Kennedy ashen-faced,” said Peter D. Feaver, a security and conflict expert at Duke University who worked on the National Security Council under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Those familiar with the nuclear briefings say they demand a sharp focus.
It’s not something that someone even with vast experience can easily digest.
Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense
“It’s not something that someone even with vast experience can easily digest,” said Leon Panetta, a former secretary of defense intimately familiar with the briefings.
“He’s got to be ready from the get-go to respond if necessary,” Panetta said. “There really is a long process, a classified process, that involves a lot of checks in the system to make sure no mistakes are made. It involves a number of key people.”
From the day Trump takes the oath of office, a military aide will shadow him everywhere, carrying a black satchel containing the system to convey a nuclear launch order. The satchel is popularly known as “the football.”
“His first briefing will be just about how the process works: ‘There will be a military aide with you at all times and he has the football,’ ” said P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force officer and special assistant on national security affairs to former President Bill Clinton.
Trump will learn how a launch order would “send key people to underground bunkers,” Crowley said. “That’s a critical dimension of this. Even for the Strategic Command out in Nebraska, this would send an airborne command up in the air.”
The black satchel operates with a dual key system, and part of the system is for the president to take a card from his pocket to input the correct codes.
“The card itself is critical to begin the process that activates the system,” Panetta said.
While the system is designed with overlapping triggers that ensure that nuclear weapons are not launched by mistake, it is also designed for a president to make a snap decision.
“It’s a very short period of time, measured in minutes,” Feaver said.
After Barack Obama received his nuclear briefings in early 2009, he laid out a vision of “a world without nuclear weapons.”
“If we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable,” President Obama said in Prague’s Hradcany Square in April 2009, promising to make nuclear nonproliferation a top priority.
But the nuclear issue has vexed Obama. While the U.S. and Russia have reduced their arsenals under a 2011 treaty, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said this month that the U.S. government needed urgently to update its nuclear arsenal to “correct for decades of underinvestment.”
In theory, no one stands in the way of the commander in chief and a nuclear launch.
We rely on the prudent judgment of an American president to make the right call with respect to crises and potential conflicts.
Scott D. Sagan, Stanford University
“We have a system that is very top-down, and we rely on the prudent judgment of an American president to make the right call with respect to crises and potential conflicts,” said Scott D. Sagan, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
Two incidents during the presidency of Richard Nixon, who served from 1969 until his resignation in 1974, underscore how an unstable president can ratchet up the possibility of nuclear war, Sagan said.
One of the incidents came near the end of Nixon’s presidency, when Defense Secretary James Schlesinger fretted over Nixon’s stability.
Nixon was drinking heavily. He was being erratic in meetings.
Scott D. Sagan, Stanford University
“Nixon was drinking heavily. He was being erratic in meetings. And so Schlesinger did something that was extra-constitutional,” Sagan said. Schlesinger gave orders to the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff that if Nixon issued any nuclear order, it had to be vetted by Schlesinger.
He didn’t have the constitutional authority to tell the Joint Chiefs to do this but did it anyway. “And I think it was the prudent thing to do,” Sagan said.
The other instance came earlier in Nixon’s term, when he sought to scare the Soviet Union into thinking he might use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam in order to get its communist leaders to a cease-fire. His secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, resisted Nixon’s plan to increase the level of nuclear alert.
“Secretary Laird thought that what Nixon was calling privately the madman theory – ‘I want them to think that I’m so crazy that I’m going to use nuclear weapons’ – Laird thought the madman theory was mad,” Sagan said. “He hoped that Nixon would calm down and that whatever was the rage that caused Nixon to say, ‘Let’s tell the military to get ready for nuclear war,’ would die out,” Sagan said.
But it didn’t, and Laird finally carried out the order for the nuclear alert level change.
Historians now think the nuclear-alert increase was a dangerous, perhaps even reckless, gambit that luckily did not trigger a calamity.
Trump’s position on nuclear issues zigzagged during the campaign, and experts are divided on whether that’s because his views are not well-formed or simply because he wants to appear unpredictable.
Some voice concern about what they see as Trump’s imprudence.
You can’t backtrack a nuclear weapon once it’s been fired.
Ira Helfand, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
“He seems to be quite impulsive. He sends off tweets in the middle of the night,” said Ira Helfand, co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, an anti-nuclear advocacy group. “You can’t backtrack a nuclear weapon once it’s been fired.”
During the campaign, after initially stumbling on even basic nuclear knowledge, Trump offered many points of view, saying limited proliferation was inevitable, nuclear war would be horrific and that the United States should always leave nuclear use as a possibility.
“I don’t think you could predict with confidence where he is going to come down on a question like this,” said Feaver, the Duke University expert.
Pushed by TV host Chris Matthews in March, Trump said he would “maybe” use nuclear weapons. When Matthews questioned that judgment, Trump pushed back. “Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?” he asked.
In April, he reiterated the point. “I will not be a happy trigger like some people might be,” Trump told NBC’s “Today” show. “But I will never, ever rule it out.”
The world now has nine known nuclear weapons states: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Combined, they are thought to have 15,300 nuclear weapons.
“Everybody that has them is planning strike scenarios against adversaries,” said Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “This isn’t just a scary thing in your basement. This is a real operational force.”
Knopf, the nuclear expert in Monterey, said a scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has promised to do, might weaken a decades-old global effort to contain nuclear weaponry, enshrined in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has some 190 signatories, not including India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
“Once you get below the surface, the support for the treaty is eroding in a number of ways,” Knopf said, adding that the big nuclear powers have not carried through on treaty commitments to conduct serious disarmament.
If a Trump presidency were to relax the nuclear taboo further, he said, it would have immediate consequences.
“You open the door, and a lot of countries may walk through it,” he said.
Whether those proliferation issues are addressed in further briefings for Trump will depend largely on his level of interest, experts said.
“My prayer is that as the president-elect becomes aware of all the responsibility that comes with the presidency, he will understand that the last thing he’ll want to do is start a nuclear arms confrontation that would end life as we know it,” Panetta said.