Former Secretary of Defense William Perry Talks Nuclear Football and Trump on Reddit

Almost immediately after President Donald Trump announced on October 2 that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, speculation began about what would happen should he become seriously ill or worse. Talk centered around the transfer of power should he need to step down, even temporarily. Even after the president appeared healthy enough to be discharged to return to the White House, some commentators and physicians continued to question the state of his health, including what effect the steroid dexamethasone was having on him. (For those not aware of dexamethasone, it is a very powerful steroid that carries with it a long line of possible side effects, such as aggression, agitation, mood changes, trouble breathing and trouble thinking.)

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry took to Reddit AMA to address these issues, especially in regards to the so-called "nuclear football." Perry served as Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the Carter administration and then as Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. He advised presidents all the way up through the Obama administration. He also oversaw the development of major nuclear weapons systems, though presently he's taken his life in a very different direction as the founder of the William J. Perry Project and its intended mission of making the world free from nuclear weapons. Perry also hosts a podcast, At The Brink, about nuclear weapons.

William Perry
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry. Getty

During the Reddit discussion, users were concerned about more than just Trump retweeting a photo of his face superimposed on Rocky Balboa's body, instead asking how close his finger actually is to setting off nuclear missiles, or if his decision could be overridden.

Perry was joined on Reddit by Tom Z. Collina, Director of Policy at the global security foundation Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC. With Collina, Perry co-wrote a new book, The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump, which chronicles the history of presidential authority over nuclear weapons and offers solutions for reducing the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe.

When asked directly during the Q&A if anyone else in the chain of command could second-guess the president, Perry wrote in response, "Even if someone else in the chain believes it to be unnecessary, they have no authority to call it off." He further explained that if the Commander of STRATCOM, the United States Strategic Command, felt the order was a mistake or illegal, they could attempt to cancel it, but the order from the president is considered a legal order not to be questioned by the military or anyone else.

Another Reddit user asked if the president could launch a nuclear attack at any time, to which Perry responded, "Yes, the football is a briefcase that is carried by a military aide that follows the president 24/7. The football followed Trump to the hospital" and weapons could be in the air within minutes of the order. In response to a separate question about the vice president having the authority to use the football in the event that something happened to president, Perry informed the commenter that, "Yes, the VP also has a football and the codes to use it. The president could transfer authority to the VP in a matter of minutes."

Perry also went on in length about what he and Collina would change about the system in regards to the nuclear football. "We would prohibit the sole presidential authority and require that both the executive and Congress approve the first use of nuclear weapons. We could also simply prohibit first use," he wrote and then continued, "We could also prohibit launching US nuclear weapons based on notification of a possible attack, as the attack may turn out to be a false alarm. We have had 3 false alarms in the US and could have more."

While Perry deferred questions about his personal feelings toward the man currently occupying the Oval Office, it wasn't until further along in the questions before someone finally he asked: "What does the Football actually look like inside? Movies often show it as looking like a sort of laptop, but is it really more simplistic than that?"

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President Donald Trump leaves CIA headquarters in 2017. In the background, a military aid carries the “football,” with launch codes for nuclear weapons. Getty Images

Perry responded, "Inside the briefcase called the football there is a communication device that allows the president to communicate with the war room at the Pentagon and a menu of options for nuclear war. No computer that we know of."

He also offered a couple more important details: "The president cannot order the launch of nuclear weapons without a code that identifies him as the president to the military command. This code is changed periodically, and would be changed when a new president enters office."