“It's a sobering moment. It defines the ultimate obligation that you might have,” said Andrew Card, who served as chief of staff to George W. Bush and was with Bush just before and after his first nuclear briefing in January 2001. It is also likely sobering for millions of the Americans who heard a series of Trump rivals warn last year that the New York mogul must never gain access to America’s massive nuclear arsenal. "How can you trust him with the nuclear codes?"
President Barack Obama said at one October rally. "You can't do it." But America will do it on Friday. From the moment Trump is inaugurated, he will be trailed everywhere he goes by a military aide carrying a 45-pound black satchel colloquially known as the nuclear “football.” Inside will be the codes, war plans and communication tools needed to start a nuclear war. By then, national security officials will have instructed Trump on the chilling steps he would have to take to order a nuclear launch that could, in theory, kill hundreds of millions of people. Little is known about the briefing itself, which an Obama White House spokesman declined to discuss.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer would say only that “every step needed to assure a peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next is taking place.” But nuclear experts and former presidential aides offered some detail and historical context for what they call a harrowing glimpse at a nightmare scenario.
Confronting the reality of nuclear war has left past presidents deeply moved, even shaken. In his 1999 memoir, Bill Clinton’s former spokesman George Stephanopoulos described seeing Clinton emerge from his nuclear briefing, held at 7 a.m. on the day of his inauguration. “The man who would soon command the most powerful military force in the world emerged … silent and more somber than I’d ever seen him,” Stephanopoulos wrote. Clinton wasn’t the only one moved. Stephanopoulos recalled that George H.W. Bush’s outgoing national security adviser, retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, “slipped out of Blair House and into the street with tears reddening the rims of his eyes.”
Trump himself has spoken about the horror of nuclear weapons. “I’d be the last one to use the nuclear weapons, because that’s sort of like the end of the ballgame,” he said at a March 2016 MSNBC town hall. But at the same event, Trump refused to rule out the use of nuclear arms, and cited the Islamic State as a possible target if “somebody hits us.”
Sources familiar with the shadowy world of the U.S. nuclear establishment said that Trump would customarily be briefed by the outgoing national security adviser, Susan Rice, along with the White House military aide responsible for the so-called nuclear football. Trump would likely be joined by his incoming national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
If the recent past is a guide, Trump’s briefing will occur Friday morning at Blair House, where Trump plans to spend Thursday night. Like Clinton, Obama in 2009 took his nuclear briefing on the morning of his inauguration, just before heading to an 8:30 a.m. church service.