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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Examines President's Ability To Order A Nuclear Strike


The authority of a U.S. president to singlehandedly order a nuclear strike has gone unquestioned by Congress for decades. Today, that changed. The Republican-led Senate foreign relations committee posed a key question. Could anything keep President Trump from launching a nuclear attack on his own? NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Democrats on the foreign relations panel pushed its Republican chairman, Bob Corker, to hold today's hearing. Ed Markey of Massachusetts led that effort.


ED MARKEY: Thank you for having this very important hearing. I requested this several weeks ago, and I just think it's so important.

WELNA: Markey is the lead sponsor of a bill that would require congressional approval prior to any nuclear first strike. Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy reminded his colleagues that this is hardly an abstract debate.


CHRIS MURPHY: We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.

WELNA: One of the witnesses was Brian McKeon, a nuclear arms expert at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. He reminded the senators that Congress alone under Article 1 of the Constitution has the power to declare war.


BRIAN MCKEON: To be sure, the president possesses the constitutional authority to defend against sudden attack or to pre-empt an imminent attack. But Article 2 does not give him carte blanche to take the country to war.

WELNA: But General Robert Kehler, who commanded U.S. strategic forces under Obama, said the decision to use nuclear weapons was not up to Congress.


ROBERT KEHLER: Only the president of the United States can order the employment of U.S. nuclear weapons.

WELNA: Still, Kehler said the military was not obliged to follow an illegal order, even from the commander in chief. That prompted this question from Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin.


BEN CARDIN: Even if ordered by the president of the United States to use a nuclear first strike, you believe that under - because of legalities, you retain that decision to disobey the commander in chief?


WELNA: Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson pressed the retired general further on whether he would have disobeyed a nuclear strike order if he thought it was illegal.


KEHLER: I would have said, I have a question about this. And I would have said, I'm not ready to proceed.

RON JOHNSON: And then what happens?

KEHLER: Well, you know, as I say, I don't know.

WELNA: The result, all parties agreed, would be a constitutional crisis. Idaho Republican Jim Risch warned his colleagues that this discussion could be sending North Korea the wrong signals.


JIM RISCH: Pyongyang needs to understand that they're dealing with a person who's commander in chief right now, who is very focused on defending this country. And he will do what is necessary to defend this country.

WELNA: As the two-hour hearing ended, Massachusetts' Markey thanked Chairman Corker again for kicking off a much-needed debate.


MARKEY: But I don't think that the assurances that I've received today will be satisfying to the American people. I think they can still realize that Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.