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‘Nuclear football’ photo taken at Trump’s golf resort puts the Pentagon in an awkward position

The Post’s David A. Fahrenthold looks at how President Trump’s approach to national security compares with his campaign rhetoric. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Susan Walsh/The Washington Post)

It’s unlikely that an Army officer posing for a photograph with a patron at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf resort while apparently carrying the “nuclear football” broke any Defense Department regulations, but doing so has put the Pentagon in an awkward situation, defense officials said.

The image was one of several posted over the weekend by Richard DeAgazio, a retired investor, as the president took phone calls publicly over dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test Saturday night. The photographs have prompted questions among some national security professionals because it appears Trump and his staff handled a sensitive — and potentially classified — security situation in public.

One of the images shows the officer — identified by DeAgazio as “Rick the Man” — smiling and putting his arm around the retired investor for a photograph. The officer wears an ornamental braided cord known as an aiguillette that, when worn on the right shoulder, denotes status as an aide-de-camp to the president or first family.

Defense officials declined Monday afternoon to discuss the photos on the record. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, they described reaction to the incident as exaggerated. The White House, which typically employs a handful of officers as aides-de-camp for the president, did not respond to requests for comment.

The “football” is actually an aluminum briefcase wrapped in leather and known formally as the Presidential Emergency Satchel. It carries material needed to launch nuclear weapons. Numerous news photographs show officers wearing name tags while carrying the satchel, including recently with Trump and last year with then-President Barack Obama:

Analysts familiar with nuclear policy said it was unusual for an aide to agree to be photographed with a civilian, although it was not clear he knew the image would be circulated on social media. Stephen Schwartz, the author of “Atomic Audit: The Cost and Consequences of Nuclear Weapons Since 1940,” tweeted Monday that he isn’t outraged by the photo with the aide — “it’s just tacky and inappropriate DeAgazio boasted about it on Facebook.”

Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., agreed with Schwartz but noted sarcastically that posing for a photo with DeAgazio was “innovative.”

Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College and a nuclear policy scholar, said on Twitter that critics are overreacting. He said holding the meeting about the North Korean missile launch in public is a “far more worrisome point.”

The football issue is sensitive in part because some conservatives upbraided former vice president Joe Biden for pointing out at campaign rallies last year that a military aide with him was carrying nuclear codes. One of the stories expressing outrage was published by Breitbart News, where Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, worked until he became chief executive of Trump’s campaign in August.

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