What are the nuclear codes?

An FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s home was motivated in part by a hunt for documents related to nuclear weapons, The Washington Post reported Thursday (Aug. 11), spurring chatter from media commentators and on social media that Trump may have inappropriately held on to the nuclear codes.

The anonymous sources cited by the Post did not specify what kind of “nuclear documents” the FBI was looking for in the raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, and the FBI has not said what documents were found. According to The Post, documents laying out information about the U.S. nuclear program or another country’s nuclear capacity could be dangerous for international security. For example, another country might view having its nuclear secrets exposed as a threat.

In that sense, the nuclear codes might be one of the less worrisome discoveries for the FBI to make. Even if Trump did hold on to the nuclear codes, they wouldn’t be useful for authorizing an attack now, because the codes change frequently. So what are the nuclear codes, where are they located and what’s the process of launching a nuclear attack?

There are two sets of codes required for a nuclear launch: the ones used by launch crews to enable and fire the nuclear weapons, and the ones used by the president to authorize such an attack. The president does not have access to the first set, according to the Brookings Institution; those are kept on military bases and at the Pentagon.

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