By now a few million Americans have met “Rick,” the aide-de-camp who carries the nuclear “football” for President Trump, and Richard DeAgazio, a Mar-a-Lago Club member who posted a selfie of the two on his Facebook page.
The entire Saturday evening in Palm Beach, Fla., where Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the Mar-a-Lago terrace among assorted high-dollar patrons, felt like touring comedy director Adam McKay’s imagination. World leaders huddling over documents, reading by the light of an aide’s cellphone; a Hugh Hefneresque character played by the president receiving news about a North Korean missile launch; and a Palm Beach fat cat snapping a picture of the nuclear satchel and posing with Rick.
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Kidding aside, we who worry, worry. Shouldn’t the football be sitting quietly in a discreet corner, minding its own business? Things have gotten so wacky in Week Four of the Reality Presidency, even Vladimir Putin must be wondering: Is anybody in charge over there?
To calm my nerves, I called a former nuclear-football minder, now a happily anonymous civilian family man, about the photo and other concerns.
“Jack,” I’ll call him, is beyond careful with his words. Ever faithful to mission, he’s a patriot who follows the rules and stays in his own lane. He’s so cautious, every other answer is “I can’t tell you that.” But he did tell me enough to ease my mind, so I thought I’d share.
First, Jack says he wouldn’t have posed for the photograph but doesn’t think it was a breach of any sort, nor did it pose a security risk. Jack still doesn’t have a Facebook account, as it was a firing offense when he was “in.” Everything on the nonpolitical side of things in Washington is governed by rules, and there is zero tolerance for mistakes. The president may goof around, but the people in charge of keeping him alive and the continuity on course are dead serious.
The satchel also has strict rules. It must always be within a specified number of feet of the president. It is essentially a portable command center, not a nuclear launchpad per se. When the president activates the satchel, he is sending a message to the Pentagon rather than firing off missiles at his whim, as some would have you believe.
The case, as others have described it, contains a book of retaliatory options, another of classified site locations, a manila folder containing procedures for the Emergency Alert System and, of course, the essential 3-by-5-inch card with the authentication codes. Yes, it’s a little chilling to imagine Trump trying to read the codes with a flashlight app while the Palm Beach set posts videos to Instagram.
One may find comfort, however, in being reminded that the military aide holding the bag, so to speak, isn’t the only one with eyes on the suitcase. “There are a million things going on behind the scenes that people don’t understand,” Jack says, reassuringly. Standing close by are at least two others locked, loaded and poised to act to protect the football if necessary.
“The point always is continuity of the presidency,” says Jack. “The country should never be without the ability to use the nuclear arsenal for more than a minute.”
Continuity was interrupted once when President Bill Clinton misplaced his “biscuit,” his personal identifier code, as related in the autobiography of Gen. Hugh Shelton, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Clinton’s second term. The vice president has the same satchel and biscuit, by the way, but they’re inoperable until and unless the president is confirmed dead or is otherwise unable to perform his duties. This would include being under sedation during surgery. The transfer of power and the making operable of those alternate instruments are executed immediately.
Those worried that Trump might get his nose out of joint and start Armageddon should probably relax. There’s no red “launch” button in the bag. Once the president sorts through his options and decides on a course of action, he launches a process — have you ever loved that word more? — including discussions with key military and civilian advisers, who may talk him out of the attack.
In the end, the president has sole authority and the Pentagon has to follow orders. But “there are checks and balances everywhere, and they’re extremely classified,” says Jack. “The most important thing is for you to make people feel safe and stop with the frickin’ . . .” He stops himself and just says, “I’m not fretful.”
If Jack’s not worried, I’m not worried. Sort of. Not. Worried.