Picture the scene:

It's the morning of January 20, 2017. The inauguration ceremony is in full swing, with songs and speeches the warm up act before the main event - the swearing in of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States, scheduled for 12.00pm - the moment when his predecessor, Barack Obama's term expires.

At 11.45am the inauguration is interrupted with some shocking news. An enemy power has launched a full scale surprise attack on the continental United States. The missiles, thought to be nuclear armed, will reach their targets in 30 minutes. The military is on standby waiting for their orders to come through. But who gives the orders?

  • 4
    The Real World isn't some game, they'd both rush into a secure location and help one another coordinate and then carry on the transition of power. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 18:34
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    While it seems contrived, it's actually a very valid question, imho. Does the President relinquish formal power when the successor is sworn in? At midnight? At noon exactly?
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 18:40
  • When does the Football change owners?
    – DJohnM
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 19:04
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    This question, although having a valid background, suffers from lack of own research. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 19:42
  • It was a 15-25 minute warning period in the 1960's. Consider what the technological advances are between then and now. Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 4:26

1 Answer 1


As you stated, Barack Obama's term only expires at "12.00pm". Since the surprise attack happens at "11.45am", Mr Obama is still President constitutionally.

So, Mr Obama will give orders at 11:45am, if it requires him to do so. The orders don't just expire when Mr Trump becomes President; the orders will still be in force.

Also, the President-elect will become President at 12.00pm as stated in the constitution. So, even if he didn't manage to take the oath for some reason, he will still be considered President. (e.g. 2008 when Mr Obama took the oath twice)

I've explained above how the situation will take place. But, in reality, surprise attacks won't happen. There's intelligence and both the President and President-elect receives classified briefings.

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    Can you expand on what you mean by (i.e. 2008)?
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 14:20
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    Can you provide a source for "...12:00pm as stated in the constitution"? Article II, Section 1.8 seems fairly clear that the oath must be taken prior to entering office.
    – Geobits
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 16:04
  • The oath of office, as a constitutional mandate, has significant implicit value, but as far as burdening the president with a prerequisite notary duty, the oath of office has very little substance. The constitution does not set a procedure for taking the oath- Pedantically speaking, an "affirmation" could be achieved by silently reading the oath to oneself and thinking, "yep!" I think it's important to make a public affirmation, but if an emergency precluded doing so, it would still not be a per se reason for a subordinate to dispute the president's legitimacy.
    – Eikre
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 21:17
  • @gerrit I suppose that luweiqi meant "e.g. 2008" instead of "i.e. 2008". That is 2008 was an example of what he said: in the official ceremony, the chief justice made a mistake in the words Obama had to repeat, there was some confusion, and finally a sense that the oath had not been done correctly. So Obama took the oath again, in private with the Chief Justice, the day after. He was still president since January 20, however.
    – Joël
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 3:42
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    @Joel It was only really done again in case somebody wanted to make an issue of it (and with all the "anti-American" crap Obama got, I don't really blame them), out of "an abundance of caution". There's not much to indicate it wasn't valid the first time.
    – Geobits
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 13:54

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