While the possibility of nuclear war has been on the table for some time, Tuesday's tense exchange between Trump and North Korea has brought the possibility into the forefront of the public conscience. After Trump warned the United States would bring "fire and fury" if North Korea continued to threaten nuclear attacks, Pyongyang released a statement saying it was prepared to strike Guam to send a message to the United States. While these threats remain hypothetical, the rising tensions and grim possibilities have many wondering who has power over the nuclear codes, and how easily they can be detonated.
In a 2016 article for Politico, during Trump's presidential candidacy, the nuclear launch expert Bruce Blair wrote about the president's access to nuclear codes, and what those mean in real-world settings.
"The 'nuclear button' is a metaphor for a complex apparatus that has the president’s brain at its apex," wrote Blair. "The image of a commander in chief simply pressing a button captures none of the machinery, people and procedures designed to inform the president and translate his or her decisions into coherent action. Although it remains shrouded in secrecy, we actually know a great deal about it, beginning with the president’s first task of opening the 'nuclear suitcase' in an emergency to review his nuclear attack options."
He continued: "If we shine our light at the tactical and timing considerations of how a first- or second-strike attack would unfold, and at the inner workings of the nuclear decision process from the standpoint of the White House, we gain a much better idea of a presidential candidate’s fitness for this responsibility. And here it is essential to consider a candidate’s temperament and character—especially in situations of extreme stress."
While Bruce's assessment confirms the fact that the president gives the first order for a nuclear attack, there is no singular magic button or set of codes that Trump himself would push. Instead, he would instruct his chain of command to set forth the weapons. Still, this small delineation might be pure semantics when considering the prospect of war.
But wait, you might be wondering, doesn't Trump have to consult a military expert before making the call? Unfortunately, technically he doesn't.
Jeffrey Taliaferro, an associate professor at Tufts with an expertise in international relations and national security tells Bustle that technically, Trump could authorize an attack without consulting his staff. However, the decision wouldn't be instantaneous.
"In theory, the president of the United States could authorize a nuclear attack without consulting anyone else. In practice, however, the situation is a bit more complex. There is no single button for a president to authorize a nuclear strike," wrote Taliaferro in an email. "Instead, a presidential order would have to be communicated to subordinate civilian officials and military commanders. The National Command Authority (NCA) runs from the president through the secretary of defense to the commanders of the nine unified combatant commands (COCOMs). In this case, the relevant COCOM is the US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), which is charged with strategic deterrence and global strike."
It took only six months of Trump's presidency for us to start having serious conversations about nuclear war.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 10, 2017
So, to answer the question of who has the nuclear codes, the president himself does not have the codes. Rather, he has the authority to send the order to the U.S. Strategic Command to set off the weapons. Hopefully, that doesn't become a reality.