Andy Card, who served as chief of staff to President George W. Bush, described to CNN’s Anderson Cooper the very serious moment when the nuclear football—the satchel containing the launch codes to the 900 nuclear warheads under U.S. control—is transferred to the new president.
Card said that as soon as the new president takes the oath of office he is the president. “So there is no transition.” There’s no getting a good night’s sleep and then assuming the responsibilities of the office, he explained.
The president-elect receives instructions from a military official about the nuclear codes either the night before or early on the day of the inauguration, Card said, before he takes the oath of office.
“It is unbelievably sobering and impressive because the military teaches the president — I think it’s one of the most memorable experiences that a president will have,” he said.
“As president-elect, they will have a military officer come in to him with a suitcase, we call it the football, and will say, ‘This is what we will do if you want it done. And we will do it if you say to do it. So this is not a debate. You’re going to have the responsibility. And I will confirm that you’ve met the responsibility and when you say the code and push the buttons and whatever it is, things will happen,'” Card explained. “So that conversation is not about conscience or anything. It’s about you say this and this happens. They will do what the president orders.”
The president takes an oath vowing to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution “and it’s the shortest oath taken by anybody and those are unique words,” Card said.
“The president cannot keep his oath without other people keeping their oaths, and many of them take an oath to follow the command of the commander in chief. There’s no conditional clause if I voted for him or like him or agree with him. That’s a sobering bit of advice. It’s not advice, it’s reality that the president gets from the military when they say you make the decision, if you make the decision, we will do it.”
The satchel reportedly contains the following:
- a black book that describes retaliatory strike options
- a book listing bunker locations to which the president can be evacuated in the event of a nuclear attack
- a manila folder explaining procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System
- a small card, called the biscuit, with authentication codes to verify it’s the president ordering a nuclear strike
Five military aids, one from each branch of the military, work in a rotation carrying the satchel, keeping it within reach of the president at all times. There’s also a separate football for the vice president in case the president becomes incapacitated.