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Here’s how the nuclear football transferred from Trump to Biden on inauguration day

Donald J. Trump at the White House on Nov. 13, 2020. (Tia Dufour/White House) | Joe Biden at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in Feb. 2020. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
January 20, 2021

Transferring the nuclear football between presidents took an unprecedented format this Inauguration Day, as former President Donald Trump broke tradition by choosing not to attend the ceremony. President Joe Biden’s inauguration marked the first time in over 150 years that an outgoing president did not attend the event.

The “nuclear football,” the briefcase containing the nuclear codes and other materials to launch a nuclear strike is always within reach of the sitting president. However, because Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort home in Palm Beach, Fla. as Biden was being sworn in, a long-distance transfer of the nuclear football was expected to take place between presidents, instead of the typical in-person handoff to take place.

Fox News reported that one of the nuclear footballs would accompany Trump to Florida. The codes linked to that briefcase were to be deactivated around noon when Biden took his oath of office.

At the same time, Biden had his own launch codes on a card in his possession in Washington, D.C., activated. A military officer physically near the new president was also holding a second nuclear football during the inauguration, NBC News reported.   

Washington Post correspondent Mike DeBonis spotted what appeared to be the nuclear football accompanying Biden at the Capitol.

Trump’s nuclear football is expected to be taken back to the nation’s capital by an aide, according to reports.

In 2013, a Discovery Channel documentary featured former Vice President Dick Cheney describing how the transfer usually happens.

“The passing of the football occurs at high noon. Nobody says a word, but I knew what to look for,” Cheney said at the time. “So you’ve got the ceremony going down front, but … sort of behind one of the big pillars there in the front, these two guys are standing there in their uniform, and at the right moment he reaches over to hand it to the newly designated military aide. And he takes it from that moment on. The new president is the guy who’s in control of our nuclear assets.

While this year’s transfer is somewhat unprecedented, presidential historian Michael Beschloss said unusual events involving the nuclear football have occurred under multiple presidents.

The nuclear football’s location “was an issue when JFK assassinated was in Dallas,” Beschloss said. “Reagan’s nuclear code card was accidentally thrown out at the hospital after he was shot in 1981. Clinton lost his nuclear code card for a few months in 2000.”

On Wednesday morning, Trump gave his final speech as president as he boarded Air Force One for his home in Florida.

“This has been an incredible four years. We’ve accomplished so much together,” the outgoing president said, later adding, “So goodbye, we love you, we will be back in some form.”