Here is perhaps a dose of cold comfort on a morning when you wake up and all the news falling around you like radioactive snowflakes is about President Trump bragging he has a big-ass “Nuclear Button”: There is no single button to fire America’s nukes—so everything is fine, ha ha!!
In case you somehow missed it, Trump tweeted on Tuesday night:
As tends to be the case, the tweet sparked widespread handwringing about our president’s capacity to unilaterally smash his hand on some big red button on his desk, raining nuclear hellfire down on North Korea, who would almost certainly seek to retaliate. There was also a lot of nonsense about “emails” and Susan Sarandon, things that absolutely matter at this point.
But as The New York Times helpfully reminded us on Wednesday, there is no singular “nuclear button” to deploy the country’s nuclear arsenal, as lasting as metaphors about a president’s “finger on the button” have been—with everyone from Lyndon B. Johnson and Hillary Clinton to Richard Nixon evoking the imagery.
The process, per the Times, is a bit more complicated than that: everywhere the president goes, he’s accompanied by a 45-pound briefcase, dubbed the nuclear “football,” which is carried by one of five military aides and contains instructions on how to carry out a strike, locations that can be targeted with the country’s 900-some nukes, a radio transmitter, and authentication codes. In order to initiate an attack, the president would first have to verify his identity with his own personalized code, which has been described as a card he’s always supposed to carry and is nicknamed the “biscuit.”
In comparison, we don’t know much about how North Korea’s Kim Jong-un might order a nuclear response, just as it’s difficult to be sure about the country’s true nuclear capabilities. But experts say it’s highly unlikely that Kim has a big red button on his desk—despite him making that specific threat on Monday—and they also say it could take the country hours or even days to prepare for an attack.
Unfortunately, our president doesn’t need approval from anyone else—not the vice president or Congress or even Sean Hannity—to authorize a nuclear strike. But hey, at least all that dithering around with codes and cases might slow a man not exactly known for the strength of his attention span down.