Kamala Harris became the first woman to have control over US nuclear weapons, but only briefly
- President Joe Biden briefly transferred presidential authority to Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday.
- That included the ability to use nuclear weapons, making Harris the first woman in US history to hold that authority.
President Joe Biden temporarily transferred his presidential authority to Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday as he underwent a routine colonoscopy, which briefly made her the first woman in US history to have power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the first woman to have control of the US nuclear arsenal.
"As was the case when President George W. Bush had the same procedure in 2002 and 2007, and following the process set out in the Constitution, President Biden will transfer power to the Vice President for the brief period of time when he is under anesthesia," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday morning.
"The Vice President will work from her office in the West Wing during this time," Psaki added.
Every US president since Harry Truman, the only leader of a nuclear-armed state to authorize the use of nuclear force against an enemy, has had sole and absolute authority over the use of nuclear weapons. And every president since Dwight Eisenhower has been followed around by a briefcase commonly known as the "nuclear football."
The "nuclear football" exists for two key reasons, Stephen Schwartz, an expert on the football and a nonresident senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, previously told Insider.
One, the briefcase "is the physical representation of the presidential authority" to order the use of nuclear weaponry, which only the president has, Schwartz said.
Two, as a product of Cold War tensions with the Soviets, the football exists because "we've been afraid that a surprise nuclear attack could catch us off guard and preclude any sort of retaliation."
The emergency satchel contains communication tools, codes, and options for nuclear war. The president also carries, typically on his person, a card with authentication codes known as the "biscuit." These codes are used together with the football to launch a nuclear strike.
The president can also order a strike from fixed command centers if needed.
The vice president is followed by a back-up football, as was highlighted when rioters came very close to former Vice President Mike Pence's football during the riots at the Capitol. The vice president also carries a biscuit with inactive codes. These tools are for rare situations in which the president is incapacitated or killed.
When presidential power was transferred to Harris on Friday, her codes were temporarily activated, giving her presidential authority to use the football or other means to launch nuclear weapons should such action be deemed necessary, Schwartz explained on Twitter.
—Stephen Schwartz (@AtomicAnalyst) November 19, 2021
The US has never had a woman president, and Harris is the first woman in US history to serve as vice president. As such, she was the first woman in US history to be given this authority. She was not, however, be the first woman in the world to have this authority.
Biden has since resumed his duties as president.
Update: This article was updated to reflect that presidential authority has been transferred back to President Joe Biden.
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