The dramatic footage of the 6 January insurrection shows the mob was within 30 metres of Mike Pence, when he made his escape. But there was a chilling detail that even the House prosecutors missed. With the then vice-president on that terrifying day, was an air force officer carrying the “football”, a large black briefcase carrying nuclear launch codes.
The codes in the vice-president’s football are not activated unless the president is dead or incapacitated. But the implications of it falling into the hands of rioters are still chilling.
“If the mob had seized Pence’s nuclear football, they may not have been able to order an actual launch but the public may not have known that,” Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund disarmament advocacy group, said. “Parading the nuclear button around would have caused widespread panic and chaos as authorities scrambled to respond.”
The secret service bodyguards around Pence would most likely have defended the suitcase with deadly force, but if the pro-Trump mob had managed to seize it, they would have come away, not just with the codes used to identify the vice-president and authenticate his orders, but also the encrypted communications equipment used to make the call to the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon.
Most damaging of all, they would have all the nuclear attack options instantly available around the clock to the US commander-in-chief. That list of options used to be in a weighty handbook, but according to Fred Kaplan, author of The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, it has been condensed over the decades into a series of laminated cards, “like a menu at Wendy’s”, as one officer put it to Kaplan.
Not only would disclosure of that menu represent one of the worst security breaches imaginable, the encrypted communication equipment would tell an adversary a lot of how the US would respond to a major attack.
“They could glean all sorts of information about its structure and technology so it’s very significant,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists.
Nuclear experts have questioned whether this cold war relic that provides such an obvious target for adversaries and terrorists, is still necessary. But the Trump era has also shone a bright light on the question of whether one individual should continue to have sole authority to launch the US nuclear arsenal.
Collina, co-author of The Button, a book on the presidency and nuclear weapons, said: “Of course the even bigger danger was that Trump had his own football that could have been used to end civilization as we know it.”
In other words, perhaps the only thing scarier than the football being surrounded by a mob is the thought of Trump being alone with it.