As tensions continue to mount between the United States and North Korea, the American public has been more conscious of the president’s nuclear launch capabilities than any time since the Cold War. Those critical of the president have voiced concerns about his emotionally stability, while the president himself has even taken to making jokes about the size of his “nuclear button,” but for all the headlines and conjecture… no one has ever accused Donald Trump of being absent-minded enough to lose those launch codes that some on the Left seem so concerned about him having. After all, with the power to unleash destruction on a global scale, no president could possibly be so cavalier as to misplace, them…
Well, except for Bill Clinton.
The late ’90s were a different time in America. The Soviet Union was long gone, 9/11 was still years away, and the American President was in hot water for his extracurricular activities with interns, rather than social media posts. Nuclear war was far from the minds of the general public, and it would seem, from the president himself.
Army General Hugh Shelton served as Clinton’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 through 2001, and in his autobiography, “Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior,” he recounts a window of what may have been months, in which President Clinton and his staff seemed to have simply misplaced the codes the president would have needed to order a launch America’s nuclear weapons.
“At one point during the Clinton administration,” Shelton writes, “the codes were actually missing for months. […] That’s a big deal — a gargantuan deal.”
According to the general, the codes were likely misplaced by one of President Clinton’s aids, as they tend to be the ones tasked with carrying the “nuclear football.” However, when the Pentagon sent officials to the White House to check on the codes (as they do every 30 days), the defense officials were met with excuses from Clinton’s staff.
On two separate occasions, Pentagon officials that arrived at the White House to inspect President Clinton’s nuclear codes (kept on a laminated card), were told that the president was in a very important meeting and couldn’t be disturbed. White House aides reassured defense officials, however, that Clinton took the responsibility very seriously, and that the codes were close by. It wasn’t until Pentagon officials arrived at the White House to replace the codes (done once every four months) that the administration had to come clean and admit they simply didn’t know where they were.
Ret. Air Force Lt. Col Robert Patterson, who was one of the aides tasked with carrying the nuclear football for President Clinton corroborated Shelton’s account in his own book as well.
“He thought he just placed them upstairs,” Patterson recalled. “We called upstairs, we started a search around the White House for the codes, and he finally confessed that he in fact misplaced them. He couldn’t recall when he had last seen them.”
The codes were replaced immediately upon the revelation that the president had lost them, and since then, the Pentagon has since changed procedures to mandate that defense officials see the codes upon their monthly inspections – even if it means waiting outside the president’s door for him to get out of important meetings.
While it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone who found the codes could have made any sort of use of them (they’re merely one piece of a larger launch procedure), the president himself would find himself unable to order any sort of launch with the codes missing. If Russia had chosen that window of time to launch a first strike, unlikely as that may have been, America would have been utterly incapable of responding – and in the fleeting moments between a Russian launch and landfall, it would have been nearly impossible to get new codes issued and distributed to launch assets around the world.
While some members of the American public may be concerned about President Trump’s ability to order a nuclear launch, it’s worth noting that, love him or hate him, at least he hasn’t lost the launch codes like some presidents in the recent past.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press