President Donald Trump tweeted this Tuesday night:
“North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
Which, naturally, led to fevered speculation — on Twitter primarily — over whether there actually is a “nuclear button” on Trump’s desk.
There is a red button on the Resolute desk that sits in Trump’s Oval Office. But, that button calls a valet to get what a president needs — which, according to reports, is lots of Diet Coke for Trump.
You can see that red button on the Resolute desk in this photo, which Pete Souza, former President Barack Obama’s official photographer, put on Instagram on Wednesday morning.
Practically speaking, it makes lots and lots of sense that there is no nuclear button on the president’s desk. As a clumsy person myself, I can imagine a president accidentally bumping into it — or tripping and landing a hand on it. Not good.
Now, that said: The power to launch a nuclear strike does rest entirely in the hands of Trump. Or, more accurately, in the hands of a small rotating group of military personnel who carry a briefcase that contains the nuclear codes.
As Garrett Graff, who wrote a great book titled “Raven Rock: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die,” explained to me last year:
“The Football — the nickname comes from the first nuclear war plan, code-named DROPKICK — is a black briefcase carried by a rotating series of military aides who are never more than a few steps from the President. It’s easy to forget it’s there, except when you see a guest at Mar-a-Lago snap a selfie with the military aide — but that aide is always present. When the President gets on an elevator, so does the Football. When you see the President driving his golf cart around his club, there’s a golf cart right behind him with the military aide and the Football. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when he went rafting out west, the Football was in a raft right behind him on the river.”
Souza put out a picture of the nuclear football this morning, too.
What Graff also made clear to me is that while Trump may not have an actual nuclear button, he does have the sole power to launch a nuclear attack. Here’s more from my Q-and-A with Graff:
“Our entire system is geared towards establishing whether a launch order is ‘valid’ only insofar as whether it’s actually coming from the President of the United States. There’s a classified system of code words that communicate between the President and the person executing the launch order — either at the Pentagon or the mountain bunker in Pennsylvania, Raven Rock, that serves as the alternate Pentagon — that the person on the other end of the phone is the actual legitimate commander in chief. But, there’s no check or balance in the system about whether it’s ‘valid’ to start a nuclear war. There’s no second voice, like the defense secretary or chairman of Joint Chiefs, that has to OK a launch.
“As bonkers as that may seem, it’s a procedure that dates back to the Cold War, when we faced the Soviet Union with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert. A president would have only about 15 minutes to respond to an attack — perhaps even less — so we devoted literally billions of dollars to building a system that could transmit a launch order as quickly as possible.”
In conclusion: Trump doesn’t have a big, beautiful red nuclear button on his desk in the Oval Office. But given the freedom he has to launch a nuclear attack as he sees fit, he might as well have one.