At what exact moment in a presidential transition does the outgoing president lose and the incoming president gain the authority to launch a nuclear strike?

  • 7
    One has to assume that it changes hands when the new president is inaugurated, not elected, as with basically everything.
    – Geobits
    Oct 20, 2016 at 16:27
  • 1
    I think the outgoing president is allowed to take one working device home, as a souvenir... :-)
    – SJuan76
    Oct 20, 2016 at 16:50
  • A president elect has no formal power. What would he or she do with the codes?
    – phoog
    May 29, 2018 at 3:24

5 Answers 5


The Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifies that

The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January

This is approximately the time that the Oath of Office occurs during an inauguration ceremony, though the constitution suggests that the specific moment of transition is 12:00pm, no matter when the Oath takes place. (Notably, if January 20 falls on a Sunday, the inauguration ceremony is postponed until Monday but a private Oath of Office is still taken at noon on January 20. This was the case for Obama’s second inauguration.)

As for the military officer carrying the nuclear football, Attn reports that they enter the inauguration following the outgoing president, and leave with the incoming one.

But that does leave open a significant window of time where it’s a little unclear who exactly they would take orders from. Say there were an attack during the inauguration (which left both the outgoing and incoming presidents capacitated). Who would be in charge?

A strict reading of the constitution would imply it simply depends whether it’s before or after 12:00:00 EST. A more traditional (as in, literally based on tradition) approach would be when the Oath of Office is completed, when the d of God is, by the president, uttered.

Presumably, this is addressed as part of the presidential military aide’s schedule or instructions, but those are both top secret.

  • 1
    If you look at the constitutional text that specifies the oath, the situation becomes a bit clearer.
    – phoog
    May 29, 2018 at 23:28
  • @phoog In what way? Is there a more relevant or specific line I’m missing?
    – Jacob Ford
    Sep 4, 2019 at 19:00
  • It says "before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation...." Taking the oath is independent of the beginning of the term. Before the president does anything as president, he or she must take the oath, but that could be days before or after noon on the 20th. If it's before, the president can start acting as such immediately at noon on January 20th. If it's after, the president can't do anything until after taking the oath. Taking the oath for a second term is probably unnecessary, but people do it to avoid possible controversy.
    – phoog
    Sep 4, 2019 at 19:37
  • If a newly elected president takes the oath after noon on the 20th, then there is a period of time when there is nobody authorized to act as president, because the previous president's term of office has ended at noon. The new president is president, however.
    – phoog
    Sep 4, 2019 at 19:39

One of the basic ideas of American government is that "there is only one president at a time". If you google that expression, you'll see lots of references to the Trump-Obama transition, and a few to previous presidential transitions (since the internet tends to be weighted to the present).

At exactly noon on the January 20th following a US presidential election (per section 1 of the 20th amendment to the constitution), the incoming president takes the oath of office, and presto, he's the president and the previous president is out of a job. Until that moment (exactly noon, ET), the old president is in charge - he/she can deploy troops (see George H. W. Bush and Somalia), he/she can issue pardons (Bill Clinton pardoning Marc Rich), etc. without any consultation with the incoming president. After the stroke of noon, he has zero presidential power.

  • Excellent answer, just wanted to add that this happens on 12:00 EST Januaury 20th even if such a date falls on a weekend, which would postpone the ceremony to the following Monday (21st or 22nd). The President-elect becomes the President on this date either way and will take the oath of office in a private official ceremony.
    – hszmv
    May 29, 2018 at 20:08
  • Is there any precedence on when exactly within the Oath that transition of power happens? On the first word spoken by the Chief Justice? When the president-elect’s hand touches the book? The president-elect’s utterance of the “d” in God? Say there were an attack during the inauguration, who’d be in charge?
    – Jacob Ford
    May 29, 2018 at 21:26
  • 1
    Update to my own question: the transition occurs at noon on January 20 no matter when the Oath of Office is taken. This was established in the 20th Amendment to the constitution. I'm going to work on this as a separate answer, as I do believe it's different than @Flydog57's above.
    – Jacob Ford
    May 29, 2018 at 21:33
  • I have updated my answer based on comments (both from @hszmv and from Jacob Ford)
    – Flydog57
    Sep 3, 2019 at 22:02

The codes are updated upon the inauguration. Note that Bill Clinton actually managed to lose the codes once.

  • 2
    Answer has no sources and gratuitously deals with Clinton, who the OP did not ask about.
    – rougon
    May 30, 2018 at 4:37

Section 1 of the 20th amendment to the US constitution says

The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January ... and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

So that essentially answers your question. The transition happens at the stroke of 12 noon (eastern time) on January 20th.

However, Article II, Section One, Clause 8, of the United States Constitution says

Before he enters the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:—"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

So the incoming president must first take the oath before he can do anything. This leaves a gap of a few minutes (depending on how the inauguration ceremony is keeping to schedule) where neither the incoming nor outgoing president has the legal authority to give executive orders.

I assume this is really not a problem. The president is often unavailable for a few minutes (e.g. in the restroom). In the unlikely event that something critical happened at 12:01, the incoming president would probably quickly recite the oath and take charge, curtailing the ceremony.


I would imagine there are probably 2 sets of codes. One for the current President (active codes) and the 2nd, immediately activated, once the incoming President is sworn in. The codes of the outgoing President are probably collected and shredded.

  • 3
    I'm sorry, but it is obvious that this answer is just an educated guess which isn't supported by any reliable sources.
    – Philipp
    May 28, 2018 at 6:41

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